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Meat. Salt. Fire.

Classical Greek literature is not the first source most North Americans would turn to in making an analogy about grilling, but then how many of them have ever seen Argentine grilling in action? Steven Raichlen has.

"Argentine grilling is the most heroic grilling in the Homerian sense," said the Miami-based grill expert and author. Homer, of course, was a legendary poet, author of ancient Greece's most sweeping war epic, "The Iliad."

"It's very primal. No adornment. Nothing fancy. No elaborate marinades," Raichlen added. "It's about meat, salt and fire."

And what fire! Take a gander at the back jacket of "Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way" by superstar Argentine chef Francis Mallmann and Peter Kaminsky, a cookbook author and food writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. There Mallmann stands in open field, stacks of plates and logs beside him, tending what he calls an "infiernillo," or "little hell," a blazing double-tiered fire topped by a sloping griddle.

"What Francis strives for is carbonization, but not incineration," said Kaminsky. "A French chef would grill a steak rare and blue in the center. The Argentines want a salty crust and otherwise wall-to-wall color. The bigger the piece of meat, the lower the heat to achieve that crust and to get uniform color."

Other distinctive Argentine grilling practices, according to Kaminsky, include moving the meat closer or farther away from the flame along that sloping griddle, depending on the heat required, and the use of black iron skillets and griddles over the coals for much of the cooking. Sometimes there's no grill at all; that sort of setup is called an asado.

"Basically (it's) a campfire with large hunks of meat or whole animals impaled on stakes in front of it," writes Raichlen in his new cookbook, "Planet Barbecue!" (Workman, $22.95). "The heat is controlled by positioning the stakes closer to or farther away from the fire."

Mallmann charmingly likens getting that technique right to going on a first date.

"It is something that you look forward to with great anticipation and a little anxiety," he writes. "You can never know exactly what the conditions will be: the day can be windy or cold, the wood may be seasoned or green. In a way, every time you cook over wood outdoors, you are starting fresh in a strange kitchen. Once you have done it enough, however, you will always be able to adapt."

Raichlen sides with Mallmann on the superior merits of a wood fire for Argentine cooking. A gas grill could get something "approaching" the Argentine taste, he said, if the appliance is "screaming hot," outfitted with heavy-duty grates and the meat is seasoned aggressively.

May sound a bit excessive, but if you're going to embark on an Argentine grilling odyssey, it pays to play boldly.

wdaley@tribune.com

Pork tenderloin with burnt brown sugar, orange confit and thyme

Prep: 15 minutes. Cook: 25 minutes Makes: 6 servings

Cooking outdoors doesn't always have to mean grilling food on an open rack. This recipe from Francis Mallmann's "Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way," uses a flat metal griddle called a chapa to cook the pork. A large cast-iron skillet or griddle would work just as well. You also can cook this on the stovetop.

6 pieces (2 inches long) orange confit, plus 2 tablespoons confit oil, see recipe

2 pork tenderloins, about 1 pound each

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon salt

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

Tear the orange confit into 1/2-inch pieces; scatter over the meat. Sprinkle with thyme and half the salt; sprinkle the brown sugar on top. Pat it down firmly with your hand. Drizzle with the oil from the orange confit.

Prepare a grill for medium heat. Place a large griddle or skillet on the grill; heat until a drop of water sizzles on the surface. Transfer each tenderloin, using a wide spatula and inverting it to place sugar-side down on the hot skillet. Grill without moving the pork until well-browned, 5 minutes. (If the sugar begins to smell burned, adjust the flame or move the skillet away from the burning charcoal.) Turn the pork; grill until done to taste or to 135 degrees for medium, 10-15 minutes.

Transfer the meat to a cutting board; let rest, tented loosely with foil, 10 minutes before slicing. Season with remaining salt.

Nutrition information: Per serving: 324 calories, 47% of calories from fat, 17 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 1,380 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Orange confit

Prep: 35 minutes Cook: 30 minutes Makes: About 2 cups

Use this confit, cut into small strips, as a garnish with any roasted meats or poultry, or as an addition to salads, soups or stews.

4 oranges

12 black peppercorns

3 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup dry white wine

2 teaspoons salt

Cut the oranges in half. Squeeze the juice; reserve it for another use. Put the orange halves in a large saucepan. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the white wine and salt. Add enough water to completely cover the oranges. Heat to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium. Cook until the orange peel is tender, 25-30 minutes. Let cool in the liquid.

Drain the oranges. Tear the peel into rough strips about 1-inch wide. Place skin side down on a work surface; scrape away every bit of the white pith with a sharp knife, leaving only the orange zest. Repeat with the remaining peel.

Put the strips of orange zest in a small container; cover completely with remaining olive oil. Tightly cover. (The confit will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.)

Nutrition information: Per serving: 97 calories, 92% of calories from fat, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 146 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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