Merkén-dusted taste of Patag­o­nia

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - By Jenn Har­ris jenn.har­ris@la­times.com

Have you tried merkén? Imag­ine the taco/fish/chicken/pork/stew sea­son­ing of your dreams, a won­der spice that has a dis­tinct earth­i­ness and tastes of chiles, pa­prika and smoke.

The rust-col­ored spice is made from Goat Horn chile (aji ca­cho de cabra), cumin and co­rian­der. It’s fea­tured pre­dom­i­nantly in the cook­ing of the Mapuche peo­ple in Chile and Patag­o­nia, and it can take sev­eral months to smoke — with three to four dif­fer­ent kinds of wood — be­fore it’s ready, de­pend­ing on the tribe mak­ing it. Yes, it’s pretty spe­cial stuff. And that’s why chef Car­los Leiva, who is part of the Mapuche in Patag­o­nia, gets his merkén from three dif­fer­ent tribes near the An­des and uses it as the fla­vor base for ev­ery dish he serves on his Mapuche Na­tive Ar­gen­tinian Food truck.

That in­cludes Leiva’s chimichurri, the Ar­gen­tinian herb-based condi­ment that’s as ubiq­ui­tous to the cui­sine as ketchup is to us.

Leiva is proud of his ver­sion of chimichurri, which he makes us­ing a mix­ture of pars­ley, gar­lic, olive and grape­seed oils, pa­prika, cumin, oregano, Cham­pagne and red wine vine­gars — and, of course, merkén.

It was an im­por­tant recipe to have when launch­ing the truck al­most two years ago in Los An­ge­les.

“I was cook­ing at beau­ti­ful res­tau­rants like Boa and I was try­ing to find good sand­wiches — good Ar­gen­tinian sand­wiches — and I couldn’t,” said Leiva, who moved to L.A. 11 years ago af­ter cook­ing in kitchens in Spain, Italy and Mex­ico. “So I said, ‘I need to do some­thing for An­ge­lenos and try to bring this kind of na­tive Ar­gen­tinian con­cept to them.’ ”

Thus the chimichurri, used as a mari­nade and sauce on Leiva’s sand­wiches, tacos, French fries and em­panadas. It’s what he uses to mar­i­nate pounded out pe­tite filet mignon for his lomito sand­wich. (The merkén gives it that dis­tinct smoked chile fla­vor you’ll start to pick up in all of Leiva’s dishes.)

The steak is grilled and added to a sand­wich with a fried egg, sliced ham and cheese, let­tuce and tomato. For bread, Leiva is us­ing a French baguette that re­minds him of the sand­wich bread in Ar­gentina, made for him by Grand Casino Bak­ery, an Ar­gen­tinian-style bak­ery near Cul­ver City. It’s a crisp, airy baguette that may re­mind you of the kind used for Viet­namese banh mi sand­wiches, only Leiva’s are slathered with a chimichurri aioli made with his sig­na­ture sauce, may­on­naise and a lit­tle ex­tra lemon juice.

He’s us­ing that same chimichurri to mar­i­nate free-range chicken breast be­fore it is bat­tered and fried for his mi­lanesa sand­wich. It’s also the top­ping for his chimichurri fries, for which he la­dles a mix­ture of chimichurri and grated Parme­san cheese onto crispy French fries. They’re won­der­fully salty and herba­ceous, the per­fect al­ter­na­tive to all those gas­tropub Parme­san truf­fle fries. Are chimichurri fries the new carne asada fries? They could be.

Leiva is also us­ing the chimichurri to sea­son his em­panada fill­ings, in­clud­ing chicken, beef and quinoa. Yes, quinoa. It’s on the menu be­cause of its im­por­tance to the Mapuche, rather than a nod to Los An­ge­les’ on­go­ing ob­ses­sion with the stuff.

“We use a lot of quinoa in our tribe,” said Leiva, who makes his fill­ing with bell pep­per, car­rots, onions, corn, spinach, mush­rooms and more chimichurri. “It’s the base of a lot of things there, and it works re­ally well for al­most any­thing.” You could say the same for all that chile.

While Mapuche posts its sched­ule on the web­site, you’ll soon be able to find the truck parked nightly on Wash­ing­ton Boule­vard in Cul­ver City. This is where Leiva is get­ting ready to open a cof­fee shop, also called Mapuche, that will also fea­ture choco­late and ice cream.

It’s all part of Leiva com­ing full cir­cle, bring­ing the cul­ture of his home­land to his cur­rent home in L.A., an idea that mir­rors the kul­trun cir­cle of life sym­bol that serves as the logo for the truck.

“Ev­ery­thing at the shop will be from L.A., in­clud­ing the cof­fee, the ma­chines, ev­ery­thing,” said Leiva, who is al­ready work­ing with Ground­work Cof­fee on the new shop. “That’s the only way to do it, help­ing my new com­mu­nity.”

Mapuche the cof­fee shop is sched­uled to open in late Au­gust.

Pho­to­graphs by Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

CAR­LOS LEIVA is ea­ger to share his na­tive and in­no­vated Ar­gen­tinian foods, in­clud­ing, clock­wise from up­per left, em­panadas, lomito sand­wich and chimichurri fries.

FOOD TRUCKIN’

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