chopped jalapenos, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.
Last night, I splurged and ate a steak.
This is a fairly rare occurrence, so it’s worth commenting as to why.
For ten years of my life, I was a vegetarian (with a bit of fish thrown in). I was pretty avid about it, and I worked hard to combine my proteins and still eat well. In fact, it was becoming a vegetarian, oh so long ago, that made me a cook. No longer able to rely on meat and potatoes, I had to search out new flavors, spices before hidden from me. I’m grateful for those years, and I’m still a mostly vegetarian. I slipped back into meat land in the first year I lived in New York. In all the running down subway steps, shuttling between neighborhoods, tutoring jobs, and one exciting adventure after another, I must not have been getting the proper nutrition. How did I know? My body told me. One week, in November, I dreamt of eating chicken, every night. I’m not kidding. I’d have a surreal, fascinating dream, informed by every part of my life, and in the middle of it I’d sit down to eat a plate of fried chicken. After seven straight nights of dreaming of it, I reached out my hand for a piece of tandoori chicken when Gabe and I were eating at our favorite Indian place on 6th Street. He gasped, I smiled, and I bit into it. I’ve never gone back. I’ve been eating meat, in small quantities, ever since. I have to listen to my body.
But I never thought I’d eat beef again.
I stopped eating beef before I became a vegetarian, so I went eighteen years without it passing my lips. In fact, I never thought it would again. I skipped the hot dogs from the vendor carts in front of the Metropolitan Museum, the hamburgers at Corner Bistro, the fatijas steaming at Mama Mexico at the botttom of my building on 101st and Broadway.
And then I was at my brother’s wedding. On a sunny summer day, a select group of us helped set up the chairs and prepare the way for the ceremony later in the day. To thank everyone for helping, Andy and Dana put on a barbeque. Hamburgers and hot dogs. My brother came over, put his arm around me, and said: “I’m sorry, Sis. There’s nothing for you to eat.”
But I, fresh from a meditation retreat and trusting the moment, said: “Oh, actually, I’ll have a hamburger.”
He gasped, the same way Gabe had three years before.
“I just believe in taking what’s offered, Andy. Beside, I’m curious about what a hamburger tastes like. So…”
So he handed me a burger, fresh from the grill. I bit into it and stopped talking. It tasted good. Damned good. The next night, I had another one.
Of course, now I know that the bun would make me sick, not the beef!
I’m still a little squeamish about beef. And some part of me feels slightly guilty about eating meat. As though, if I were a better person, I’d be completely vegetarian again. I don’t rule it out. And I really do plan my meals around the vegetables and whole grains first, and add a bit of meat later. Call me a vegetarian who happens to eat meat.
Being a vegetarian all those years was inadvertently great preparation for having to eat gluten free. I already knew what it was like to wander my way through the maze of the day while trying to avoid certain foods. I already knew how to ask questions about ingredients and pick out only the best restaurants. And now, I’ve switched the food I cannot eat, this time because of the direct consequences on my health. But all of us who avoid certain foods know how that discipline can yield creativity.
So why a steak last night?
Well, on Sunday, Meri and I made something I had never heard of before that morning. She and I were flipping our way through The Zuni Cafe cookbook, because I was showing her all the recipes I’ve been eager to make. Turning toward the back to find the desserts, I happened to open the page to something that made Meri gasp: “Chimichurri! Oh, we have to make this!”
Puzzled, I said, “Okay, I trust you, but what is it?”
Well, it turns out that chimichurri is the national condiment of Argentina. Used throughout South America, it’s a herb-filled, peppery sauce, like salsa with a pungent kick. The Argentinians layer it on grilled steak or marinade poultry with it. Apparently, they also have bowls of it on every dining table.
And why that name? Well, according to Wikipedia:
It is told that the unusual name comes from ‘Jimmy McCurry’, an Irishman who is said to have first prepared the sauce. He was marching with the troops of General Belgrano in the 19th Century, sympathetic to the cause of Argentine independence. The sauce was popular and the recipe passed on. However ‘Jimmy McCurry’ was difficult for the native people to say, so Jimmy’s sauce was corrupted to ‘chimichurri’. It is unclear how the sauce became a part of Nicaraguan cooking.
Other similar stories involve Jimmy Curry, an English meat importer; a Scot, James C. Hurray, travelling with gauchos; and an English family in Patagonia overheard by the group of argentinians that were with them while saying “give me the curry”. All the stories share a British colonist and the corruption of names or words by the local population.
Well, with stories like that, I had to make it.
The world of food amazes me. Even though I’m writing about it every day, cooking every evening, taking pictures of food when the light falls beautifully on my kitchen counters, and talking with everyone I know about his or her favorite recipe, I’m still learning something new every day. I love that there’s a sauce that every Argentinian knows by heart, can’t imagine a day without it, and I had never heard of it before Sunday morning. Food humbles me. And it does my heart good to widen my world with food.
There are, of course, ten thousand variations of the sauce, with different families arguing that theirs is the best. But this is the one we had in front of us, so we tried it. (See recipe below.) We peeled leaves from rosemary stalks, crushed red peppers in the mortar with the pestle, broiled jalapeno peppers unti they blistered, threw in fresh oregano, crumbled dried bay leaves, and watched the sauce become itself. Heating the oil made me nervous, because I didn’t want to burn it, and this was a huge amount of my expensive oil. However, it was worth it. Pouring the hot oil on the mounded-up herbs made it all sear, start to build in flavor, and form this mysterious mixture that I could tell, immediately, I’d be making again.
Dipping my nose into the red bowl, I almost reeled from the smell. Hot with garlic, spicy with the jalapenos, sweet herby and green acrid from the oil…ah, forget it. I can’t describe it. Sometimes, words frustrate me. They’ll never match the experience. You’ll have to take my word for it.
After we had made it, Meri and I admired the sauce. It needed to cure for a day before we ate it, so we set it aside. But Meri told me, “I just think it’s the best thing one can put on a steak.”
So this evening, after a day at school, and a long bike ride in the waning light, I stopped at PCC and bought myself some flank steak. (Oregon Country Beef, who raise their steaks without antibiotics or hormones.) And I rushed right home to put it under the broiler, snatch it from the tray, and ladle the chimichurri all over the top. And one bite. Ahhhhh.…. My lips are still tingling and my mouth still smiling.
I’m already imagining it in omelettes, on braised tofu, on autumn squashes, in the middle of ravioli. You certainly don’t have to eat meat to enjoy this sauce.
You have to try it. Bring a little Argentina into your home today.
CHIMICHURRI, according to the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, p. 299
1 jalapeno (about 1/2 ounce), preferable red
2 teaspoons tightly packed fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons tightly paced fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon tightly packed fresh rosemary leaves
about 1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons sweet paprika (we used crushed red pepper)
1 tablespoon tightly packed coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 to 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 bay leaves, crumbled
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
about 1/2 teaspoon of salt
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Char the jalapeno, either direcxtly in the open flame of a gas burner or a charcoal fire or close under the heat of a hot broiler. Use tongs to turn the pepper a few times until it is generally freckled with black and smells good, about one minute. When the pepper has cooled slightly, have, seed, and mince it. Don’t rub off the tasty black blisters—include them in the chimichurri.
(note from Shauna: we used five jalapenos, because I had them. I like it hot.)
Place the oregano, thyme, and rosemary in a mortar and pound lightly.
Warm the oil in a small saucepan until it is hot to the touch. Pull from the heat and stir in the bruised herbs, plus all the remaining ingredients, including the jalapeno. Taste. Leave to infuse for at least one hour at room temperature before serving.