The food that usually pops into your head when you think of Argentina is beef. Argentina is famous for its delicious asado which is what we best translate as barbecue. However, asado is so special that it deserves to be called by its Spanish name and not a translation.
A typical asado begins with a picada which is cheese, olives, and a selection of cured meats like salami and ham. Then comes the main event. First you eat grilled offal, chorizo, and morcilla. Finally, the perfectly cooked meat (usually flank steak) is set out. My personal favorite is mollejas or sweetbreads. Sweetbreads in the US and Europe are generally served in a rich sauce or even fried. Here they are simply grilled over a fire until they’re crispy. With a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and sprinkle of salt, they are incredible.
As you may know, Argentina, like the US, is a country of immigrants. Almost everyone I’ve met here tells me about a grandparent from Italy or Spain. The Italians really left their mark on Buenos Aires, even the language. A phonetic study of the porteño accent (the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires) showed that it is actually closer to the Neapolitan language spoken in Southern Italy than any other language in the world. Not only did they influence the language and the last names, but lucky for me, they also left their mark on the cuisine. Great pizza and pasta are extremely popular, as are empanadas which have their roots in Spain.
All of these dishes are delicious and when you visit Buenos Aires, I hope you will try one of the many parrillas for great grilled meat, a pizza parlor for delightful pizza and empanadas, and a nice Italian restaurant for mouth-watering pasta. Everyone you meet will have an opinion on the best spots, get a few recommendations and you won’t be disappointed. As I said, these places are on every corner. Restaurants like La Paila, however, are not.
La Paila is a restaurant near our apartment that specializes in food from the North of Argentina. We’ve been there several times and it’s never failed us. They almost always have live Latin American music. The most common is beautiful Argentinian folk music. The place is cozy and the wait staff is friendly. It may sound strange, but traditional food, meaning from the provinces outside of Buenos Aires, is not so easy to find here. I guess it’s like looking for Southern comfort food in New York City. It’s there, but you’ve got to search it out.
We had one of our first meals at La Paila and it was as interesting and delicious as the rest of them. Kevin had not yet learned Spanish, so the ordering was up to me. I ordered a simple sandwich to start. After taking one bite, he looked up at me and said, “This is delicious. What is it, some kind of meat sandwich?” I stifled a giggle and replied, “Um, it’s the vegetarian sandwich…”
It is true that it was incredibly savory and provoked the idea of meat. Needless to say, this has been a running joke since the first week of the trip. I might make a nice vegetarian soup, take a sip and then say, “What is this some kind of meat soup?” The statement is followed by my own fit of laughter. I’ve even used this joke with salads and cakes. It just doesn’t get old, to me.
This sandwich is simple and doesn’t call for a sauce. One of the things I have learned from both Spanish and Argentinian cooking is that when you start with great ingredients, you just need a knife and a bit of salt to make something delicious. Obviously sauces have their place, but it’s not here. Please give this a try without mayonnaise, pesto, or chipotle sauce and tell me what you think.
La Paila Vegetable Sandwich
I broiled the vegetables as I didn’t have a grill available. Feel free to use a grill or a grill pan. Just be sure that the vegetables are very tender for this dish, especially the eggplant as eggplant is actually toxic when consumed undercooked.
1 small eggplant, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 round or traditional zucchini, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 red pepper, cut into ½ strips
½ red onion, sliced
4 cloves of garlic, cut in half
goat or mozzarella cheese, crumbled or sliced respectively
4 tablespoons good-quality olive oil, plus a bit extra for drizzling
coarse sea salt
whole wheat baguette
Preheat the broiler to high. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on a large sheet pan; arrange the zucchini, red pepper, red onion, and two cloves of garlic on the pan. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil on top of the vegetables and sprinkle with coarse salt, pepper, and a pinch of oregano. Repeat this process in a separate (smaller) pan for the eggplant.
Place the pans in the oven and broil for 5 minutes. Check on the vegetables at this point and flip them over. Repeat this process for about 15-20 minutes or until very tender. Usually the eggplant takes a few minutes longer than the other vegetables. If the vegetables are browning too fast, you can turn the broiler down a bit towards the end of the cooking process.
While the vegetables are cooking, slice the baguette into four parts and then in half and drizzle a bit of olive oil on the inside of the bread. Remove the garlic from its skin and rub one on the inside part of the bread for each sandwich. Place some of the vegetables on the bread and top with cheese (to taste) and then with the other slice of bread.
Heat a panini press or a frying pan and toast the sandwich for 2 minutes on each side. Remove and devour.