Thanks to the South American eateries popping up in Australian cities, the phrase "Argentinian cuisine" generally elicits images of meat-heavy barbecues; grilled chorizo, sticky beef ribs or even a whole animal cooking over hot coals. But Melbourne chef Mauro Callegari, who was born in Argentina and moved to Australia in 2003, says there's a lot more to his homeland's favourite fare. "The reality is we eat a lot of meat but we also eat a lot of pasta, a lot of rice and a lot of salads; it's not just meat."
Callegari says people who say they "do not like vegetable dishes" simply may not be approaching them the right way. "Many people just boil vegetables, or roast them ... But they are very versatile and if you cook them in creative ways you can really replace any meat meal with something that will satisfy even those people who say they don't like vegetables."
The recipe below is Callegari's interpretation of a typical Argentinian dish of barbecued vegetables. "I look at the dishes I grew up with and I like to give them a bit of a twist," he explains. He recalls eating vegetables cooked underground in a pit (curanto-style). "When the vegetables are cooked all you needed to do was brush off the dust and maybe peel them; delicious ... The flavours of the vegetables are so much more concentrated, almost like you're eating an extract."
Sadly, local health and safety regulations make building a cooking pit at his restaurant True South a little difficult, but he has tried to re-create that flavour with this dish.
Vegetables De Estacion Quemados (Burnt market vegetables)
A plate of roasted vegetables is topped with a zingy salad, spicy provencal-style sauce and crumbled feta.
For vegetarian roast
1 tin palm hearts (available Spanish or South American delis and grocers)
2 red onions
2 beetroot (whole)
1kg mixed potatoes (ie: king edward, kipfler, purple congo, royal blue)
1 head fennel
300g king brown mushrooms (part of the oyster mushroom family, available in bags from some green grocers) or oyster mushrooms or large field mushrooms
80g feta cheese
1 bunch baby beetroot
2 sprigs rosemary
1 bunch mixed radishes
1 bunch baby turnips
200g enoki mushrooms
1 bunch basil
For provencal (use similar to salsa)
1/2 bunch parsley (finely chopped)
1 clove garlic (finely chopped)
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
Extra virgin olive oil (Frantoio from Chapman Hill if possible)
For the provencal
Take 1/2 bunch parsley and 1 clove garlic and finely chop. Add 1/2 tsp chilli flakes and 100ml of extra virgin olive oil. Combine all the ingredients into a bowl, stir and leave to the side.
For vegetable salad
Take the baby beetroot, mixed radishes and baby turnips; wash and slice very finely. Combine, and add a handful of basil leaves, the enoki mushrooms and the seeds from one whole pomegranate to the bowl and put to the side to use later.
You can use a grill or barbecue, or pan-fry the vegetables.
For "burnt" vegetables
1. Cut the whole king brown mushrooms into slices.
2. Remove outer layer of fennel and discard. Wash remaining fennel, then slice in half lengthways. Peel into layers.
3. Cook the mushrooms, fennel and jalapenos.
For grill or barbecue: Drizzle mushroom slices, fennel and whole jalapenos with olive oil and toss with some salt. Then add to a hot grill and cook until well-caramelised. The vegetables should be nicely charred (not burnt-black).
For pan-fry: Callegari's tip to get good caramelisation is to add the vegetables to separate, very hot pans and then add the oil and salt about 30 seconds later. This not only helps to prevent burning from spitting oil but achieves a good char on the skin of the vegetables.
4. Boil all the whole potatoes until soft in the middle. Leave the skins on and add a pinch of salt (about 1 tbsp) and 2 sprigs of rosemary to the water. Begin by cooking the largest potatoes first, then gradually add smaller potatoes so they cook evenly. * Do not boil until the potatoes are very soft as you will later pan fry or grill them. It should take about 20-30 minutes to cook the larger potatoes.
5. Meanwhile, prick the red onions and two whole beetroot with a small thin knife, rub them with salt and olive oil and bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes at 190C.
6. Removing onions and beetroot from the oven, cut them into halves or quarters and present them on the plate.
7. Once soft enough remove potatoes from boiling water, drain of excess water and smash them so that they are left roughly mashed, but left reasonably whole.
8. Drain and wash palm hearts thoroughly and cut them in half, lengthways.
9. Put smashed potatoes and palm hearts into a very hot pan and add some olive oil and salt after about 30 seconds. Pan-fry until the potato skins are nearly burnt.
10. Add the potatoes and palm hearts to the plates.
11. Add the other cooked vegetables (fennel, king brown or oyster mushrooms, jalapenos) to the plate.
12. Take the vegetable salad made earlier and scatter over the top of the cooked vegetables.
13. Drizzle each plate with the desired amount of provenzal and crumble feta cheese over the top to finish the dish.
Serves: Dinner for 6 people, or serves more as a side.
Video: Tom McKendrick and Tim Young
Interview: Jane Holroyd
Mauro Callegari will be cooking up a feast at the Patriotic Argentinean Vego event, True South Brewery, Black Rock, June 20, $65. It is part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival's Roast Collection, melbournefoodandwine.com.au