Saturday, June 30, 2012

How to Read a Recipe: Chimichurri

A friend asked me for an opinion on a recipe that his girlfriend wanted him to make.  This is not an uncommon occurrence for me for two reason; one, I have an opinion on everything and two, I have a lot of good riffs on standard food.

People often ask how they can be more creative or go away from the recipe and so I think I am going to do a series of these.  If you have any recipe that you are looking for new ideas, just let me know and I'll see what I can do.

Here was the original recipe.

Can you beat this for a starter recipe:

 1 bunch flat leaf parsley
 8 cloves garlic, minced
 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
 1 lemon wedge (juice of)
 1 tablespoon diced red onion
 1 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
 1 teaspoon black pepper
 1/2 teaspoon salt


 Pulse parsley in processor to chop.
 Add remaining ingredients and blend.
 Separate sauce into equal parts.
 (Use half for basting or marinade).
 (Use other half for table service).

So, for starters, this recipe is basically an Argentinian herb sauce to accent beef or lamb. It is to brighten and enliven an otherwise heavy and plain cut of meat.  Many culture use acid to cut through the fat and richness of a dish. Google helps with finding that out if you didn't already know.  One of the ways to get a feeling for what a recipe does is to check a bunch of the recipes out and see what appeals to you. Sometimes you will find other cultural analogues; my favourite sauce with steak is a salsa verde which is a green salsa made with tomatillos.

Think of it this way.  Unless you are doing something incredibly picky, the chances are the recipe you are using is just someone's interpretation of how they cook.  They write something down and then a recipe tester gets to it to try and clarify it.  What we are trying to do it work backwards...

Essentialist Approach: What is essential in this recipe?  Let's look at the ingredients and pare them down to the bits that are needed. Parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt.  These are the basic ingredients, everything else is just flourishes or improvisation.  You could go even more into the components; herbs, fat, acid and flavour enhancers but that is a little further than we are going today.  I just put it here for your consideration.

Locavore/Seasonal: Replace the garlic with garlic scapes, drop the lemon and use vinegar, add other fresh herbs as available. Parsley, basil and any other that seem to taste good to you.  Hell, add some lavender flowers or a little of something you find around.  If it were later in the season, turn this into a red chimichurri by adding tomatoes or red peppers.

Umami Boosting: If you want to mess with the flavour by boosting the savoury (umami) or adding spice then add chipotle pepper juice, pepper flakes or hot pickle juice instead of vinegar.  Cheese, tomato paste, some nuts or mushrooms could add the umami that will make the meat taste meatier.

Flavour Matching: If you want to match the meat spicing then you'll have to figure out what you are spicing your meat with and determine the flavours that you want to accent.  So, if you are doing Montreal steak spice then pick more lemony flavours to accent the garlic, dill and coriander in the spice mix.

Literalist Approach:  This is a playful approach where you try to figure out where the original recipe may have come from and work from that.  Other times it is taking the name and using it as a way of developing a recipe.  Wikipedia states that the origin of the word could mean give me salsa or give me curry.  There is a start right there - use more Mexican ingredients or Indian spicing.  Another line talks about adding a mixture of things in no particular order.  Right back to the grandmother in the kitchen trying to make her steak taste good...


  1. I loved this post and appreciate the time you've taken to break down how you come up with your creative recipes. I used to stick exactly to a recipe but am more confident now and do try substitutions frequently. You've given me lots more ideas for exploring further! Thank you!

  2. We saved some weak meat with a similar recipe. Thanks as always for a terrific post and a great blog.