Flash in the Pan 

Chewing the fat

I've always enjoyed casual conversation, and rarely been averse to chewing on a nice hunk of fat. But the expression "chew the fat" never resonated with me, until some muchileros showed me the phrase's literal meaning.

Muchilero means backpack, and the muchileros are a tribe of Argentine wanderers who camp their way across some of the finer parts of the landscape, banding together around the fire by evening to drink matè, play guitar and plan the next day's adventures. It was next to one such fire, under a starry night in San Martin, that I understood fat chewing.

A piece of meat had been cooked over wood coals. Red wine was flowing. There was a bowl of salad, a loaf of bread, and everyone ate his share. As we lingered in our joyous collective afterglow, I sat there chewing the fat with the muchileros, as I literally gnawed on a bone to which a glob of fatty material was attached. Several times I put my bone back on the grill to heat up and re-melt. The matrix of fat and connective tissue attached to that bone continued to surrender flavor as I chewed.

I imagine language evolved in ancient scenes like this, around the same fires that hardened the spears and cooked the meat of our ancestors, while keeping away the wolves. They chewed the fat, told stories, worked on their communication skills and planned the next day's adventures.

In addition to stimulating conversation, some anthropologists believe that cooking food facilitated human brain development by increasing the efficiency with which calories are extracted from food. Because cooking produces soft, energy-rich foods, fewer calories are spent in digestive efforts, leaving a higher margin of caloric recovery. This supposedly allowed our brains—the most energy-intensive organ we have—to grow.

Though fire was the original stove, today's cooks have largely left it behind. With the loss of fire, we've also lost touch with the feelings and flavors associated with it. But fire remains available, at our service, a genie in a bottle that can be conjured anywhere, any time. And when we do, the experience of tending hot coals takes us to an archetypal place of smoke and ash—which, by the way, we're now told are carcinogenic.

In his recent cookbook, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, Argentine chef Francis Mallmann writes: "I adore dissonance in food—two tastes fighting each other. It wakes up your palate and surprises you...The right amount of burning or charring can be delicious and seductive: a burnt tomato, for example, has a dark crust bordering on bitter, while the inside is soft and gentle in texture and taste."

Applying the right amounts of smoke and fire to your food is a delicate act, and easy to overdo. You want these harsh flavors to be team players, and not take over.

One common rookie maneuver in this department is to start cooking before the fire completely burns down to coals. This exposes your food to licking flames that can char the food and make the smoke flavors too strong.

Start the fire about an hour before you want to cook. Spread the coals evenly under your grill grate and wait for them to develop a layer of white ash.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Some woods burn hot and quickly, some have sweet smoke, and some throw a lot of sparks. Hardwoods are generally better for cooking than are soft woods. Wood from fruit trees is a safe bet, although, true to form, chokecherry wood has bitter smoke. Cherry, on the other hand, is one of the best, burning hot without too much flame, and producing a sweet smoke. Apple is right up there with cherry. Hickory, alder and mesquite are common, good options. Whichever wood you use must be fully dry.

Your meat should be at room temperature, seasoned with salt and pepper. Some meat cooks love their marinades. But I say if you have good meat, you should be able to taste it. If anything, I'll serve my simply cooked meat with a sauce. Lately I've been into chimichurri, an Argentine garlic and herb vinaigrette.

Chimichurri is best prepared a day ahead so the flavors can develop. It will continue to age nicely for a few days in the fridge. Applied to fire-cooked meat, the spicy, oily, acidic fragrance of the chimichurri interacts with the slightly crispy, slightly smoky, slightly charred exterior of the meat to create the kind of harmonic dissonance that would make Mallmann cry.

To make chimichurri, dissolve a tablespoon of coarse salt into a cup of water. Chop a head of garlic, a cup of fresh parsley and 1/4 cup fresh or dried oregano (or marjoram) and add it all to a blender. Blend, adding 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and then 1/2 cup olive oil. Finally, blend in the salt water. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and keep in the refrigerator.

When your coals have burned down and you're ready to cook meat, make sure the grill grate is clean, and oil it with a piece of fat or an oil-soaked paper towel. You should be able to hold your hand at grill level—a distance of 2–4 inches from the coals—for about two seconds before the heat forces it away. The meat should sizzle when it hits the grill.

The following instructions are intended for this hot of a grill, and for an inch-and-a-half-thick steak. Adjust the times appropriately to your conditions.

After five minutes, lift the steak and rotate 90 degrees—this prevents over-burning by the hot metal grate. After four more minutes, turn the steak over and repeat the process, turning 90 degrees after five minutes. After that final turning, it's two minutes to medium rare.

Chewing the fat continues to guide and reflect human evolution. As the primal act of cooking with fire contrasts with the newer, sophisticated arts of wine and sauce making, a harmonic dissonance develops. It's even better than a burned tomato.

Ask Ari: Beating blockage

Q: Dear Flash,

I've been eating psyllium husk powder, on the advice of a friend, to treat some, shall we say, bowel-related problems. Basically, I've been feeling that more food is going in my mouth than what's coming out the other end. And what does come out the other end is, shall we say, sloppy.

Well, the psyllium husk is clearly helping. It's gotten to the point where the smell of it in the morning, when I take my first dose, has the effect of loosening my bowels that the smell of coffee used to have. The quantity of material that's been leaving my body has been epic.

I'm very happy with it, and also curious as to what psyllium husk is, and what is going on.

—Too Much Information

A: When you say you've been "eating" psyllium husk powder, I hope you mean you've been drinking it, after mixing it in water. Eating dry psyllium husk can lead to choking and other blockage problems in the throat.

Psyllium husk comes from the small seed of the isabgol plant, aka Plantago ovata, which grows in high arid regions of India and Pakistan. The husk is water-soluble and extremely absorbent, soaking up as much as 15 times its mass in water. It's also extremely fibrous, and those fibers are like rebar in the sloppy contents of your intestines, reinforcing that goop into a solid fortified matrix. Meanwhile, the psyllium husk powder attracts water from elsewhere in your body, which creates a heavy mass in your bowels. That mass, assisted by the gelatinous consistency of the wet husk, creates something of a greased torpedo, and it's bombs away.

Just don't overdo it. Too much psyllium husk can create a blockage in your intestine, and cause you to be dehydrated as it absorbs water from your blood and tissues. Drink lots of water when using psyllium husk.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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