Patagonian Asado al Palo: The Best Lamb You've Never Tasted
After living in Chilean Patagonia for 14 months, I'm convinced: lamb is a dish best served on an iron cross.
Photo by Dana De Greff
The Patagonia area spans across southern Chile and Argentina and it's a place full of wildlife and nature. There are blue-tinted glaciers, grasslands that stretch for miles, and free-roaming animals such as pumas, condors, and the endangered huemúl deer.
And, of course, there are also sheep.
Before my trip, my idea of lamb involved over-cooked chops or a cone-shaped mass from a kebab joint. So when I was invited to my first asado al palo, barbecue on a spit, I wasn't too thrilled.
Little did I know that in Patagonia, an asado isn't just a delicious meal; it's a throwback to the old days, a time when sheep were the livelihood of Argentine and Chilean cowboys, and ranching and farming were common professions.
Today, asados take place after a special event or workday: a rodeo, a señalada (marking of animals), an esquila (sheep shearing), or the celebration of Chilean Independence day.
Around an open coal and wood fire pit, friends and family gather to drink the brewed herb called mate, listen to music about gaucho life, and tell savory stories.
When it's time to eat, nobody uses plates. Men unsheathe their knives and slice the meat -- beautiful, golden, and crispy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside -- right off the bones. A leather drinking bag full of wine is passed around, and when everyone is done, everyone uses a communal cloth napkin.
To learn more about asados, I spoke with Patagonia native Jaime Ganga, a chef who has been preparing lamb this way for more than a decade. He started making his own asados at the age of fifteen.
Short Order: What type of meat is the best to use for an asado al palo?
Ganga: Lamb, because it's easier to cook and it's more tender.
Why is it important to use the al palo cooking method?
On the iron cross, the lamb can be stretched out vertically and the whole roast can be positioned over the fire to cook slowly. This allows the juices to cook the lamb and the excess fat to drip off.
What's the best wood to use for roasting?
Well, I don't know what the best wood in Miami is, but in Chile we use Antarctic Beech.
How long should you cook the meat?
About 3 hours is enough time, cooking each side equally.
Any tips for a fantastic asado?
Throughout cooking, you should keep the meat moist with salmuera -- a warm water, salt, and garlic clove mixture. Also, you need to have pebre, a Chilean condiment made of chopped onions, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, aji peppers and olive oil, and red wine.