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I lob him the burning question: How is Uruguayan food different from Argentinean?
"The grilling process is different, the way we lay out the grill and the type of wood we use," he says. "And the way the meat is cut. In Uruguay, the typical cut contains the ribs. And we use all the parts intestine, the nape of the cow's head, sausage made from all the little pieces and leftovers, and blood sausage. We eat the tongue."
I'm getting the idea that there are thousands of Uruguayans in South Florida quietly living the life or at least eating the food of their ancestors. And, judging from the dancers filling the Cultural Center, none of them are fat. "It makes me hungry just hearing it," I say.
Jonathan gets a faraway look in his eye. "Yeah," he says. "We do a parrillada every weekend more or less at my place. It's a lot of fun."
"No kidding?" I say. "I would totally love to experience that."
There's a sort of ritualistic rhythm to the way Uruguayan meats are cooked and served: chorizo and blood sausage first, followed by organ meats, and finally the fine steaks.
Specific preparation rules govern the offal. Chunchulines, the small intestines, are cut in rings and pre-soaked in milk. They might cook slowly on the grill as long as four hours basted every now and again with saltwater. Young bull testicles, criadillas, are sliced in half and cooked over low heat, as are the ubres, or udders (I later discover these are difficult to locate on the shelves at Publix or anywhere else). Tripa gorda is treated like the small intestine. Chotos, a true Uruguayan development, are a braid of the lamb's large and small intestines, and for the higado a la tella, they cut the liver in pieces, season it with bay leaf, onion and garlic, and cook it slowly inside a membrane. Then there are the chorizos; the salchicha; the molleja, or sweetbreads; and the morcillas, or blood sausages, made sweet with raisins, nuts, and orange peels or salty with spices and onions.
I've been to President Supermarket in Lake Worth, and I've been to the meat counter at Sedano's in West Palm Beach. Nobody at either place speaks English. I'm trying to find out if they get any meat direct from Uruguay.
"Meat? Yes, we have," the butcher says.
"From Uruguay? Where does it come from? Uruguay?"
"Yes," he says, nodding and pointing to the hulking sides of beef in his case. "Meat."
A customer takes pity on me, translates my question, and the guy behind the counter freezes like I'm an immigration hound and he's just been busted. "No, no," he says. "No from Uruguay. Only America." I get a similar response from Kevin Hernandez, who owns the International Supermarket in Margate.
The United States imports about 300,000 metric tons of meat from Uruguay annually, give or take the vagaries of the market so where's the beef? Most of it, sadly, is used in manufacturing canned goods, in organic dog kibble, and, surprisingly, mixed into fast-food burgers. But we should take a page from our southern neighbors: Uruguayans stay relatively healthy in spite of the fact that their meat and animal-fat consumption is through the roof: 24 percent of their diet (they consume 110 kg of beef annually per person, compared to 44 kg per person in the United States). Their rates of heart disease and obesity are no worse than North Americans'. And Uruguayan life expectancy is the highest in South America 75.9 years.
By Labor Day, despite the hundreds of broad and subtle hints I've dropped from Lake Worth to South Miami, my mailbox is still not groaning under the weight of invitations to an authentic Uruguayan barbecue. "With the Uruguayan parrillada, everything is done between family or between friends," my cookbook sniffs. Really? OK, fine.
I briefly imagine building a rock fire pit in my backyard with the help of my Mexican neighbors, who'd be totally up for it, but the forecast is for rain. My new cobalt-blue Weber One-Touch Gold delivered by UPS is still in pieces in its box.
I borrow a rusty grill. Then I call up my Guatemalan friend Sandra, a confirmed vegetarian, and bribe her so as to avoid further misunderstandings to serve as translator. At President Supermarket, we buy chorizos the size of thumbs and plump, black blood sausages, a T-bone steak that's USDA-stamped but not graded, with a nice strip of fat around it. We find a package of frozen tripa gorda. I pick up two ten-pound bags of wood charcoal from Argentina, potatoes and peas for Lily De Los Santos' Russian salad recipe and a bottle of oil to fry the tortas fritas. I'll use parsley, oregano, and garlic from my garden for the chimichurri sauce. Then we head for La Reina Supermercado, hoping to scare up the royalty of the Uruguayan grill, the fatty belly meat called matambre.
La Reina, with its butchery the size of a football field, has the matambre. We also find chunchulines, the small (lamb? the package doesn't say) intestine that I'll be slicing and soaking in milk, and the mollejas, or sweetbreads. And to our giddy horror, we spot a package of criadillas, three bull's balls the shape of beanbags, nestled in La Reina's freezer section. We marvel over their size. We're suddenly bent over with laughter. I'm ready to roll.