Food & Drink : The pesto of South America

Tired of salsa morning, noon, and night? Try a little chimichurri on your meat

Chimichurri. Chimi-churrrrri. It just sounds delicious and exotic. But what is it? Turns out, that’s not such an easy question to answer.

The short version is: Chimichurri is Latin-American pesto. Fresh herbs, spices, and oil are blenderized into a thick sauce. Sounds prosaic, but this simple condiment performs a delectable alchemy on grilled beef — a mainstay in Argentina, where chimichurri is supposed to have originated. But exactly which herbs and spices, and which add-ins, are a matter of debate.

Pork kabobs with chimichurri sauce.

The Food Lover’s Companion, a definitive dictionary of all things food, proclaims that chimichurri should include parsley, oregano, onion, garlic, salt, cayenne, black pepper, olive oil, and vinegar. Perhaps that’s why most U.S. chefs follow that formula in their recipes. It certainly tastes great. But Argentineans themselves get a little more creative. In a country that stretches from the subtropics to sub-Antarctic, regional variations abound. There’s “chili chimichurri,” with more hot pepper and a little sugar; “tomato chimichurri,” which is more like salsa than anything else; and even a chimichurri made with shredded carrot. Some cooks add diced sweet pepper, others cumin, others smoked paprika.

Chimichurri has spread all over South and Central America. Argentina is heavily influenced by the Mediterranean diet of its Spanish conquerors and Italian immigrants — hence the parsley and red-wine vinegar. In other countries, the more readily available cilantro and lemon juice take center stage. Nicaragua claims churrasco (grilled skirt steak with chimichurri) as a national dish. In the Dominican Republic, a “chimi” bought at a “chimichurri stand” might have once been a hamburger with chimichurri sauce, but now it can simply be a hamburger.

Chimichurri couldn’t be easier to make — just throw the ingredients into a blender or food processor and pulverize. It’s best made no more than an hour or two before serving, as the parsley turns a kind of dull green as it sits in the fridge, but it’s pretty good left over, too.

Which foods go best with chimichurri? Grilled meat is customary, although it also goes well with fish and chicken. If you want to go all out, chimichurri is the star condiment in a traditional Argentine asado, a sequence of grilled meats: first morcilla (blood) sausages, then chitterlings and sweetbreads, followed by ribs, flank steak, and possibly a young goat. Naturally, you’ll need an appetizer. Choripan is customary — a grilled chorizo sandwich.

With chimichurri, of course.

Rob Byers and Tara Tuckwiller write a food column for The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

Grilled Flank Steak with Chimichurri

1 c flat-leaf Italian parsley, packed
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 T red wine vinegar
2 T dried oregano
2 t ground cumin
1/2 t crushed red pepper
3/4 t cracked black peppercorns
Kosher salt
3/4 c plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 flank steak (about 1 1/2 pounds)

Heat a gas grill to medium-high heat. In a food processor, combine parsley, garlic, vinegar, oregano, cumin, red pepper, cracked black pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 cup olive oil. Process until you have a fairly smooth chimichurri (makes about 1 cup). Set aside. Rub both sides of flank steak with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle each side with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Grill to desired doneness (up to 10 minutes per side for medium, depending on thickness). Remove from heat and let rest 10 minutes so juices can be reabsorbed into the meat before slicing. Slice thinly across the grain. Pass chimichurri separately. Serves 6.

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