Monday, April 7, 2008

Chimichurri, or Cooking by Feel

"I'd eat anything, if you'd put this sauce on it."

So said a customer to me on Saturday night in reference to the vibrant green sauce on her grilled veal skirt steak. While this sauce is good, mighty good, I might not give up my firstborn for it as this woman seemed inclined to do. Still, it is a simple and marvelous complement to any grilled meat, which is its role on its home turf in Argentina, where it is on practically every table and where grilled meat (asado) is practically a sport.

The first time I ever encountered chimichurri, I thought "this is nothing but a slightly modified Piemontese salsa verde." This shouldn't be surprising because Argentina was settled in large part by Italians. Like its provincial Italian forebear, chimichurri is a roughly chopped sauce. But, unlike salsa verde which often uses hard-boiled egg yolk as an emulsifier, chimichurri separates easily.

In Argentina and now throughout South America, each cook's sauce is slightly different from every other and if the truth be told, each time a cook makes the same sauce, it is different: a reflection of mood and ingredients on hand. Certainly, I never make the same sauce twice. My ingredients are fairly classical, though more sauces than not contain oregano and fewer contain cilantro. And shallots are a nod to fine dining: rough sauces would contain only garlic. Suit yourself.

Here's my rough starting point:

3/4 c red wine vinegar
1 bunch of Italian parsley, destemmed and roughly chopped
8-10 sprigs cilantro, destemmed and roughly chopped
2 large shallots, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t black pepper
1/2 t salt
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
3/4 c extra virgin olive oil

And here's my rough procedure:

Chimichurri is not a smooth sauce. When I have time, I pound the solid ingredients out in a mortar and then add the oil and vinegar and season to taste. When I am pressed for time, as Saturday, or when I am making a big batch, the big VitaMix blender comes to the rescue. I might have used the RobotCoupe instead, but it was dirty.

When using a blender, make sure not to overblend. I add the vinegar, the rough chopped parsley/cilantro/oregano, and the rough chopped shallots and pulse the blender just to break the ingredients down into a chunky sauce. Then I mix in all the rest of the ingredients by hand and season to my whim.

Now on Saturday, after mixing up the batch for dinner, I thought it needed more bite, both from acid and from spice, so I added a couple extra tablespoons of red wine vinegar (I was going to add lemon juice, but the vinegar was at hand and the lemon was not), another big pinch of black pepper, and a larger pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. After it sat for an hour, it certainly got better, but I thought it needed more salt, so I added an extra pinch.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that recipes are merely guidelines and that ingredients, mood, circumstances, and the phase of the moon all influence the end product. At some point in your cooking career, you have to liberate yourself from recipes and cook by feel. Chimichurri is a great place to start.

Like some of us chefs, chimichurri gets better with age. Better to make it a day ahead. Refrigerate if the Health Department is looking over your shoulder.

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