Spotlight on Uruguayan Food with Quinto la Huella
South American cuisines have been appearing on food trend lists for a number of years, putting grains such as quinoa, root vegetable yuca (cassava) and many types of corn on menus around the globe. In particular, the food of Uruguay has been garnering appreciative attention. With its mix of indigenous style, colonial Spanish and Portuguese influences, European imports and African cooking, the country’s food has successfully blended diverse culinary traditions into simple dishes that tempt the appetites of gourmets everywhere.
There’s one tradition in particular that has made its way onto the radar of barbecue aficionados: the asado. Asado can be used to refer to both the grilled meal as well as the social gathering itself, in much the same way the word barbecue is used. So what is asado? Usually meat, meat and more meat — and maybe some fish and seafood — grilled on a parrilla, a hefty grill fuelled by wood or charcoal. Built with a cantilever, the parrilla’s grill grate can be adjusted to be near or far from the hot embers. ‘It’s our church. Almost everything in the Uruguayan kitchen is cooked on the grill or in a wood-burning oven,’ explains Martin Pittaluga, co-owner of Miami restaurant Quinto La Huella, which is the sister restaurant to the successful beachside Parador La Huella in José Ignacio, Uruguay. In the hands of a skilled asador (grill cook), the parrilla comes alive as the embers glow and the heavy grill is moved up and down and tilted to the perfect angle.
The gauchos may have cooked their food outdoors over open fires but the parrilla has literally elevated it to a completely different level. Its preparation starts with lighting the wood or charcoal and letting it burn until flames die down and the coals burn red. The hot coals are moved into place under the grate and meats are arranged on the grill. Juicy mollejas (sweetbreads), tender grass-fed beef, fresh fish and seafood are cooked slowly, transforming them into mouth-watering pieces of deliciousness. An asado may start with mollejas, chorizo and blood sausage moving on to innards and then the prime cuts. Minimal seasoning means the flavours of the fresh ingredients shine through. Complement them with a Uruguayan signature red wine; a full-bodied drop made with tannat grapes that are high in antioxidants and tannins.
And the asado provides the stage for the asador to perform a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. With smoke rising from the parrilla, glowing coals are raked and more wood is added to fuel the grill. The asador takes time to caramelise the meat and cook it to a deep, rich cocoa brown, a skilled practitioner both taking the heat and managing it as well.
At Quinto La Huella, chef Nano Crespo explains the concept as, ‘We work more on the ingredients than on composing the dishes. Our food is very, very simple. We try to source the very best possible ingredients and treat them with a lot of respect and just simply grill it.’ For the most authentic flavour, wood is used as much as possible to cook the food served, and Crespo and his team pay close attention to their sourcing: the meats must be grass-fed, preferably from smaller producers, and the fish must be wild-caught and sourced locally when possible. ‘We want people to understand the simplicity,’ he says. ‘We’re serious about the fundamentals, from the olive oil and salt to the most expensive piece of meat.’
The other key to Uruguayan food philosophy is that a truly enjoyable meal is never simply about sustenance. The most memorable meals are usually enjoyed with friends and family. As Pittaluga says, ‘Our food is all about how the food is cooked. We don’t need to be the best. We want people to remember their nice moment. In that, I think our restaurant is special.’
Alongside this fierce guarding of tradition, Uruguayan cuisine — like many others — draws on more recent influences. With access to fresh fish and seafood, sushi and sashimi are popular dishes. Italian immigrants have contributed perennials pasta and pizza, and Crespo, who trained and worked in Italian restaurants in California, makes other fresh, light dishes based on that formative time. It was also during those years Crespo worked with the revered Matthew Armistead at Soho House in West Hollywood, where he expanded his repertoire from predominantly grill and pasta dishes to work with a variety of vegetables; the vast selection available in California and the ways they could be prepared was eye-opening, he says. Now the chef creates many vegetable-based dishes including a salad of grilled endive, white anchovies and avocado, and another made with kale dinosaurio (Tuscan kale), which is not only delicious but fantastically named.
From diverse roots, the cuisine of Uruguay has created something all its own, and carries a simple, honest philosophy at its heart. ‘We look for simple, quality ingredients and we care for them,’ says Crespo, whether on the parrilla, a pizza tray or a sushi dish. The philosophy carries over from caring about the food to caring for guests. A dining experience is simply that: an experience. Of course, the food is important — quality ingredients, care and skill in handling the ingredients — but the attention to detail and attentiveness shown to guests makes the experience so much more.