We just returned from a 12 day vacation in Argentina, so it seems only natural to be pondering chimichurri right now. I suppose the place to start is to explain that, while I’m an admittedly obsessive cook, I’m not an especially obsessive food tourist. Before I travel I do a fair amount of research and make mental lists of the local foods I want to try, then I do my best to fit them into my trip. I rarely do it the other way around. In Argentina, chimichurri topped my “must try” list but I never sought out the “best” or most authentic samples. I didn’t organize afternoons of chopping or grilling with locals either, but that’s not going to stop me from forevermore making sweeping, “expert” generalizations about “real” chimichurri. I was served a few bowls of the stuff in the right country. I figure that counts for something.
If you aren’t familiar with chimichurri, it’s an Argentinian sauce. (It may be more accurate to call it the Argentinian sauce.) Chimichurri is a blend of parsley and herbs, garlic, chiles, and lots of oil, with some vinegar and sometimes water mixed in. It’s like a vinaigrette made thick with seasonings. As for the origins of the sauce, my romanticized version involves rugged gauchos picking wild herbs on the pampas and strumming guitars around perfect, crackling campfires at sunset. Francis Mallmann, the handsome outdoorsman and Argentinian celebrity chef often pops up in modern versions of that storybook.
My first taste of chimichurri was in the early 90’s when my friend, Jamie Guerin, stirred up a batch for a nightly restaurant special. He had been to Argentina several years before and has always had this great knack for capturing flavors from his past and making them seem very current. Chimichurri became one of those foods that start out as a tiny blip on my radar and fills the screen a few years later. Over the past decade or so, the US has fallen deeply in love with chimichurri. So much so that I won’t be surprised to see a Jack in the Box chimichurri burger or Chipotle chimichurri burrito soon. I’ve heard it (wrongly) described as “Argentinian pesto”. It’s inevitably bright green, fragrant, strongly flavored with garlic and it often has a fierce chile bite.
But here’s the thing – none of the chimichurri I saw in Argentina was like that. It was always a greenish, brownish red. It was thick with herbs, but they weren’t vibrantly fresh. The sauce had a pleasing aroma, but no real herbal perfume. Parsley seemed more for bulk, body, and to offer contrast to the earthiness of grilled meat. The taste of dried oregano was more front and center. There was minced garlic and onion, but they never had raw pungency. Some versions had almost a toasty flavor, perhaps from reconstituted dried onion and garlic? All of the sauces were red with peppers, but none were really spicy, at least to my chile-loving palate. One had finely minced fresh red pepper in the mix. I stirred, swirled, spread, drizzled, and poked at the sauces until my dissections drew unwanted attention. But they are finely chopped, and I couldn’t always pin the contents down. One of my favorite versions seemed to have celery seeds floating on the surface.
In the northern jungle town of Puerto Iguazu, I bought a big bag of dry chimichurri mix from one of the oddly prevalent Italian market stalls. It’s basically a mass of dried herb flakes and mild red chiles with a bit of salt, but is so similar in appearance to some of the sauces I was served in the capital, I’m pretty convinced that some places just start with a dry mix. Only after a targeted search did I find a few commercially produced bottled sauces. They had the same reddish color and herb ratio, but clearly had added gums and stabilizers to maintain an even suspension of particles. I considered packing some home to do a taste comparison, but decided against it. I already know what preservatives taste like.
Argentinian chimichurri was never tossed with pasta like pesto. It was never used as a basting mop. It was never served as a sandwich spread or dressing for roasted vegetables. (Although I saw several people spooning a bit of sauce on their rolls before their entrée came. Whether or not these people were actually Argentinian remains unknown. The guy I saw mashing his French fries into the communal bowl like it was a party dip was clearly not a Porteno.) Chimichurri was served only at parillas, (pronounced parijas) which are places that specialize in grilled meat. If no one at the table orders meat, I’m guessing a bowl of chimichurri won’t be dropped off at your table. At the Brazilian border, chimichurri was served along with bowls of farofa – the very tasty, garlicky condiment that looks like bread crumbs but is actually dried manioc. In Buenos Aires it was always served with a bowl of salsa criolla, a relish that looks a lot like pico de gallo, but is actually a marvelous salty, vinegary condiment.
I think everyone will agree that a good steak is diminished if you dunk or drown each bite in sauce. A little smear
now and then is enough. Chimichurri offers a bright little intermission and entertainment during Argentinian meat marathons. It lightens the heavy load and stimulates the palate. Chimichurri is particularly good with rich organ meats and sausages. One of the most popular uses of chimichurri is on “choripan” fresh white rolls filled with firm, garlicky grilled chorizo sausage and a generous slathering of chimichurri. Our late afternoon choripan experience in San Telmo was one of our favorite meals in Buenos Aires.
So, where do I stand on chimichurri today? Pretty much exactly where I was before, with just a touch of added smugness. On page 201 of Mastering Sauces, there is a recipe for Gaucho Chimichurri. I like it a lot, and now that I’ve tried the real stuff, I feel even better about it. My own recipe is an evolution of the sauces I tried over the years melded with the experience and wisdom found in Francis Mallmann and Peter Kaminsky’s fine cookbooks. It’s a mix of the Americas, made with lots of fresh parsley, but also dried herbs. It’s best served the second day. Yes, the color tends to be more army green than shamrock, but the oregano, garlic, and chiles are mellowed and infused into the oil.
I can’t say I’ll be making it anytime soon. I’m done with steak for a while. I’ve had my fill. But that doesn’t mean I’m done with Argentinian food. Salsa criolla definitely caught my attention. I’m interested in learning more about this simple little fresh sauce with zippy flair. It goes really well with chicken and fish, so keep your eyes peeled for more. But we are talking about chimichurri here…
Gaucho Chimichurri (Mastering Sauces, page 201)
Yield: 3/4 cups
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
Stir together all of the ingredients. Seal in container and leave to infuse for at least 4 hours and for best flavor, overnight.
Serve at room temperature.
Refrigerate for up to 5 days.