With hugely popular restaurants in Buenos Aires (Patagonia Sur), Mendoza (1884 Restaurante) and Garzón, Uruguay, Patagonian-born Francis Mallmann is not only the most famous chef in South America, but is easily one of the world’s leading experts on cooking with fire. I was happy to discover this during a recent stay at his charming hotel-restaurant in Garzón (featured in the June 2012 Hideaway Report).
Mallmann’s food was so good, in fact, that I became curious about this gaucho of the grill and looked him up. Suffice it to say that a biography of the swashbuckling Argentine chef’s life would make an awfully good read. The son of the man who directed the Argentine nuclear program, Mallmann led a rock ’n’ roll life in San Francisco and traveled around Europe. Returning to Argentina, he took a job as a chef in his hometown of Bariloche, the Aspen of Argentina. Soon he landed a job as an apprentice at Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris, then spent the next six years bouncing back and forth between Argentina and France, where he worked in some of the country’s greatest kitchens just as la nouvelle cuisine movement was being launched.
Mallmann eventually grew bored with being the best French chef in South America. “All those towers and decorations and too many things on a plate pushed me to go brutal and beastly in my cooking,” he told American food writer Peter Kaminsky during an interview. After the earthy New Andean cooking at his first restaurant in Bariloche became a hit, he moved to Buenos Aires, and a star was born.
Mallmann is best known for playing with fire, and doing so brilliantly. From “Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way” (Artisan Books, New York, 2009), the book Mallmann wrote with Kaminsky, I learned that his basic technique is to work with very high heat, which cooks meats, fish and vegetables quickly while sealing in their juices. As an amateur grill chef myself, I found it great fun to discover Mallmann’s cooking methods, and here are two of my favorite recipes, which, cooked together, make for a terrific Latin American grill just in time for summer.
Smashed Beets with Greens, Goat Cheese, and Garlic Chips
The beauty of beets is not apparent when they’re boiled into tasteless submission. But if they’re cooked in a broth enriched with olive oil and vinegar, then smashed and griddled, their natural sugar content results in a chewy, crunchy burnt crust and soft, sweet insides.
Scrub the beets well with a brush but don’t peel them—they are most delicious served with the skin on.
- 8 equal-sized red beets, scrubbed and stems trimmed to 1 inch (reserve the greens)
- 1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for the pan
- 5 black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- Coarse salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- A large handful of beet greens (reserved from above), trimmed, washed, and dried
- 3 cups mixed greens, arugula, or spinach
- 8 ounces Bûcheron or similar goat cheese
- Crispy Garlic Chips made with 10 garlic cloves and 1 cup oil
Put the beets in a large saucepan with 1⁄2 cup of the vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the peppercorns, bay leaves, and 1 tablespoon salt. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and boil gently for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the beets, until they are tender enough to be easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Drain in a colander.
Beets are messy so use paper towels to prevent stains. With the palm of your hand, gently smash the beet between the towels: you want it to yield just enough to flatten slightly but not crumble apart. Use a wide spatula to transfer the beet to a tray lined with foil (for easier cleanup). Repeat with the remaining beets. Brush the beets with 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Brush a chapa or large cast-iron skillet with olive oil and heat over high heat. When it is hot enough for a drop of water to sizzle on the surface, add the smashed beets (you may need to do this in two batches) and cook for about 2 minutes on each side, letting them blacken. Transfer the beets to the foil-lined tray and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
To make the vinaigrette, pour the remaining 2 tablespoons vinegar into a small bowl and gradually whisk in the remaining 6 tablespoons olive oil until emulsified. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, toss the beet greens with the mixed greens and place a mound of greens on each plate. Place the smashed beets alongside the greens and crumble the goat cheese over them. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, and scatter the garlic chips over all.
Crispy Garlic Chips
Serves about 4 as a garnish
The French have a saying, “You must watch what you’re cooking light milk on the stove,” referring, of course, to the fact that milk can boil over in a flash. Case in point: Garlic chips are sweet and nutty when cooked just right, but let them go just a little too long, and they become burnt and acrid.
- 4 garlic cloves, as large as possible, peeled
- 1 cup olive oil
Using a small slicer or a mandoline, slice the garlic very thin.
Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until very hot. Line a plate with two paper towels. To test the temperature of the oil, add a slice of garlic. If it sizzles, add the rest of the garlic and cook until just crisp and light golden brown, a matter of seconds. Use a flat slotted skimmer to keep the slices from sticking together as they cook, and transfer them to the paper towels to drain the moment they turn color. (The oil can be strained and used for another batch or reserved for another use.)
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Tournedos Wrapped in Bacon and Sage
I haven’t been able to take this dish off my menu since I served it at age nineteen in my first restaurant, in Bariloche. That place was called Nahuel Malal, “The Pelt of the Mountain Lion,” in honor of our rare Andean pumas. Some years ago, near my mountain cabin in Patagonia, my children Alexia and Francisco and I saw a pair of them at first light. Each night for the rest of our stay, we left food for them, and each morning it was gone.
- 4 strips slab bacon, cut 1⁄8 inch thick and about an inch wide, or 4 strips lightly smoked bacon
- 4 beef tournedos, cut 1 inch thick, about 5 ounces each (see Note)
- 16 fresh sage leaves
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the bacon in a saucepan with 4 cups cold water, bring to a simmer, and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
Pat the tournedos dry. Wrap a strip of bacon around the circumference of each, evenly spacing 4 sage leaves in each bundle. Tie with kitchen string.
Heat a chapa or large cast-iron skillet over high heat until it starts to smoke and a drop of water sizzles on the surface. Sprinkle the tournedos with salt and pepper and stand them on their sides on the hot surface, so that the bacon is in contact with the hot pan. Cook, without moving them, for 11⁄2 to 2 minutes, until the bacon is well charred. Rotate the tournedos a quarter turn and cook until the bacon is crisped, then repeat two more times so the bacon is nicely crisped all around. Turn the tournedos to their flat sides and cook for 2 to 3 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Transfer to a platter and let rest for 3 minutes.
Remove the string, and serve the steak.
Note: Tournedos are steaks cut from the tenderloin, also known as filet mignon.
Excerpted from Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2009. Photographs by Santiago Solo Monllor.