29th October 2010
Fernando Trocca, the Argentine executive chef of the Gaucho restaurant chain, presents a master class in barbecuing meat. Step one: choose your charcoal
You wouldn't catch most chefs fiddling about with charcoal first thing in the morning, but for Argentinean Fernando Trocca, it's as important as any other ingredient. It's responsible for the smoky flavor of the meat served at Gaucho, the restaurant chain of which he is executive chef, and it's also what he's been cooking for 23 years. All of which explains why the first thing he picks up in his kitchen is a coal shovel. Standing beside the 4ft-wide, built-in barbecue, he fusses and shovels, spreading pale grey coals, which have been burning in a pile in the corner of the chimney since 4am, in a thin layer beneath the grill. Only when his fire's ready does he even think about what he's going to cook.
In Argentina, he explains, most kitchens will have a wood-fired grill that burns quebracho, a hard wood that releases heat slowly over a long period. In the UK, lump wood does the trick, lit with twigs (rather than firelighters), then left to burn until it is covered with a layer of ash. Determining the correct temperature is key, he says: put your hand over the grill and it should feel hot, but not burn the skin. "Flames are the enemy of good meat. You don't want it to be carbonized - you want it to be caramelized on the outside and pink and juicy in the middle". Trocca is today providing a master class in the art of grilling, alongside Gaucho's meat expert, Ryan Hattingh, who can tell you almost anything you need to know about barbecuing flesh. "A simple way to check the fire's temperature," he says, "is to sprinkle a few drops of water on the grill. If they sizzle, then disappear in three to five seconds, the temperature is perfect. If they vanish instantly, the grill's too hot". The first rule of barbecuing is to put meat on the grill unseasoned, "salt doesn't dissolve in flames, it burns" explains Trocca, "so it's more sensible to put the steak on and season only the top side of it. As the meat cooks, the salt will sink down and flavour it. "To seal in flavour, they suggest, brush the steak lightly with lemon and garlic infused corn oil before cooking (not olive oil, because this burns as at lower temperature). And to check whether the meat is cooked, you should press it gently and examine the colour of the juice. "If the juice is red, the meat's rare; if its brown and red, it's medium; if it's brown, it's well done".
Like a true Argentine meat-lover, Trocca doesn't believe that starch is entirely necessary at a good barbeque. "Definitely no bread. If you want carbohydrates, the potatoes baked in foil with parsley, butter, olive oil and salt are delicious or try humitas - little parcels of sweetcorn and basil - served with lots of salad."
Plus, of course, a glass of Argentine Malbec ("which is perfect with meat") and, afterwards, something sweet to contrast with the salts and fats of the main meal. In his home town of Buenos Aires, he says, a cheesecake made with dulce de leche (sweetened cooked milk) is typically served, accompanied by bitter biscuits. "The recipe I use is by Pamela Villar, the most famous patissier in Argentina - because it cooks for just ten minutes, it's all soft and creamy in the middle. After all that salty steak, this intense creamy sweetness is delicious." It's also incredibly rich. "Yes, but if you don't have bread, its ok," Trocca says. "And don't forget: wine helps the digestion."