El jefe de la salsa

boss_of_sauceHow I, sort of, finally made Argentine chimichurri.

And Emeril wasn’t involved.

Nine years ago I took off to gallivant around Buenos Aires, Argentina, leaving my husband home with our two very young boys

The trip marked a turning point in my life – and it had nothing to do with testing Mike’s chops to care for a toddler and a preschooler solo (kind of) for period of weeks.

I returned from the trip, quit my stable, full-time-with-benefits job, launched a consulting business, and joined Rotary – the organization that had sponsored the trip. At that time our local district would partner with Rotary International to take a group of normally sane young(ish) adults, and ship them someplace else. In exchange, folks here would welcome a team from that district.

Our team traveled to a mega metropolitan area that’s known for steak and wine and gauchos (and art and music and literature). Their team came to Idaho, known for (…say it with me) potatoes. To varying degrees, there’s all that other stuff, too. Just a little more spread out.

Although it wasn’t my first international trip, the experience launched a serious case of wanderlust as well as an appreciation for experiences that put me on the edge of my comfort zone.

Since then, we’ve hosted kids and adults on exchange from Germany, Korea, Switzerland, Argentina and Finland. We’ve drug our own family around the world, and are planning to ship one or both boys off for their own exchanges when and if they want to go.

One of the biggest highlights of any trip for me is trying new food. The downside of every return (along with discovering no has come by to clean up the mess we left in our frenzy to get to the airport) is the realization I won’t be able to create many of my new favorite dishes at home.

This is only partially because I lack the culinary skills of a preteen with an Easy Bake oven. It’s also because there are actual ingredients elsewhere that aren’t readily available here.

… And it’s because because someone forgot to book Emeril.

… And it might have something to do with the fact that practically all of my kitchen utensils date back to our wedding and look like they were used at some point for yardwork (pizza cutters cannot cut PVC pipe, by the way).

I regularly forget this lack of Emeril in the kitchen when we host exchange students, and ask them if they have favorite dishes or recipes they’d like to share. Our Finnish girls were happy to oblige, which means I ended up with a new appreciation for baked goods that did not come from an Easy Bake oven.

Guillermo was more interested in playing golf than in whipping up a batch of cookies. Given that, I knew a full-on Argentine asado (what we’d call barbecue) was not in our future. But I had a serious hankering for some chimichurri.

Chimichurri is to Argentines what salsa is to us. There are a variety of ways to prepare it, but it’s basically vinegar, oil, lemon and a combination of spices to drizzle over meat. There are a few places locally that say they serve chimichurri, but I’ve never had the same fall-in-love kind of experience with any such sauce since I was actually in Argentina.

The chimichurri recipe I found online and tested on Guille was met with polite appreciation, but not recognition. When, I pointed out that he was, in fact, eating a delicacy of his homeland, he smiled and nodded.

Not completely the out-of-his-tree reaction I was going for.

Then again, not very many people have the kind of reaction I do to food, so maybe he was doing a little happy dance on the inside.

This chimichurri recipe called for parsley. The chimichurri I remember was red, not green, but I gave it a shot. Since I was going off the reservation on the color palette, I figured I might as well use cilantro, which I like better than regular parsley.

The result was probably something with which Guille actually was totally unfamiliar, and shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing.

Anyway, it motivated him to ask for his mother’s recipe on my behalf.

Guille’s mom’s recipe is the real deal. It’s also to be prepared “al ojo” or “by eye,” so what I got was a list of ingredients without proportions.

I actually really suck at assembling even the simplest recipes “al ojo,” so I looked up a chimichurri recipe in a book I actually brought back from Argentina (but which was thankfully in English, and used American weights and measures – “Hello, metric system? Let me introduce you to the US, I don’t believe we’ve met”).

Then, I noticed an ingredient in Guille’s mom’s recipe that neither translated well, nor was in my Argentine cookbook – aji molido. Aji is pepper. Molido, as it turns out, is a mild, flavorful variety that isn’t easily found here.

I was able to locate some in the specialty foods aisle of our local co-op, but it was ground, rather than crushed. Crushed aji molido would have been better for the texture I wanted.

In the end, I replaced the crushed paprika my Americanized recipe called for with the ground aji molido I found, and added a teaspoon of crushed red chili pepper for texture, not enough to be too spicy.

I also added red wine vinegar, according to the recipe in the book. When I ran out of that I used cider vinegar. When I ran out of that, I resorted up using plain, old white vinegar. The kind you can also use to clean your bathrooms or cool a sunburn if you don’t mind smelling like a pickle.

I didn’t make the mistake of using cilantro again, but chopped up a bunch of flat parsley.

In the end, I don’t know exactly if I can ever recreate this particular chimichurri, but I do know that I came up with something much closer to the Argentine version than anything I’ve tasted here. The chili pepper gave it a slight lingering bite that the Argentines probably wouldn’t appreciate. The flavor of the aji molido was there, though, and gave the chimichurri the unmistakable color and aroma I remember.

Suddenly, I was back in La Boca, on a patio surrounded by brightly painted buildings, sipping a malbec and watching street performers tango…

… In my head, of course. I was actually just dipping bits of leftover roast into a mason jar and eating over the sink.

And it was all kinds of awesome.

Salud, amigos.

***

Chimichuri al Monica (with thanks to Shirley Lomax Brooks’ Argentina Cooks! Treasured Recipes from the Nine Regions of Argentina)

4 cloves chopped garlic
1 bunch chopped parsley
Aji molido (Argentine pepper, crushed if you can find it, or 2 tablespoons hot paprika or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper)
.5 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon each course ground salt, crushed peppercorns

I also used vinegar per Brooks’ recipe (should have been 1.5 cups red wine vinegar, but in my case it was a combo of whatever I could find in the cupboard – life on the wild side)

Brooks’ recipe also called for 2 crushed bay leaves and 2 teaspoons dried oregano.

Combine all ingredients in a large mason jar and refrigerate overnight. Todo es a ojo (all is by eye). Unless you’re me, in which case I used the measurements above.

***

Seriously, I cooked, people. You can vote. Every day. It won’t kill you. Thanks.

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