How to make Argentina's provoleta, a grilled provolone cheese

A grilled provoleta being prepared in New York.
A grilled provoleta being prepared in New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Grilled provoleta on a toasted piece of baguette.
Grilled provoleta on a toasted piece of baguette. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) Bubbling melted cheese is hard to resist, whether it is French fondue swirled around cubes of bread, Swiss raclette spread on hot boiled potatoes, or Tex-Mex queso fundido, served with thick tortilla chips. On my first trip to Argentina, I encountered a South American version.

My friend Fernando Trocca, a well-known Buenos Aires chef, met me at the airport. I was tired from the 10-hour flight, but ready for anything — and hungry.

Chef Fernando had arranged for a group of friends to have dinner that evening at one of his favourite restaurants. A few hours later, we gathered around a long table at the bustling parrilla El Pobre Luis. I was warned to prepare for a night of feasting. It would be a traditional meat-centric asado, with everything grilled over a huge bed of hot, glowing coals.

The first item to arrive was not meat, however. It was a grilled piece of cheese — a typical Argentine appetiser called provoleta, fragrant with oregano, crisped and browned at the edges, and starting to ooze. There was nothing low-cal about it, and it was delicious, smeared on bread that had been toasted over embers. Little bowls of chimichurri, the local version of salsa verde, were also on hand for extra embellishment.

The meal was off to a good start, lubricated with free-flowing red Malbec wine, from the Mendoza region in the foothills of the Andes, as the meat began to arrive. First came little chorizo and morcilla sausages and sweetbreads, as well as chinchulines (grilled chitterlings) and kidneys, not for the faint of heart. Then came every cut of beef imaginable, from skirt steak to rib-eye and everything in between.

But back to provoleta. In the United States, imported Italian provolone is your best choice. Provolone is a long, cylindrical cheese; what you want is a perfectly round piece sliced at least an inch thick. Go to an Italian deli or a good cheesemonger and ask to have it cut. Let it come to room temperature, uncovered, allowing the exterior to dry a bit. Then dust both sides with oregano and crushed red pepper.

In Argentina (and Uruguay), provoleta is tossed on the grill like a steak, but unless you are very experienced, you risk losing the cheese that way, watching helplessly as it melts and drips into the fire below. Amateurs are well advised to cook the cheese in a small cast-iron pan over the coals. But a good version can be made on the stovetop, under the broiler or in a hot oven.

It makes a fine snack, perfectly suitable for non-carnivores, too.

Recipe for provoleta (Grilled provolone cheese)

Total time: 30 minutes

INGREDIENTS

For the chimichurri:

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Large pinch of crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons cold water

For the cheese:

8 ounces provolone cheese, sliced at least 1 inch (2.5cm) thick

1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 baguette, sliced in 1/2-inch rounds, toasted, if desired

METHOD

1. Make the chimichurri: In a small bowl, stir together the parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, crushed red pepper, vinegar and water. Thin with a little more water, if necessary, to make a pourable sauce. Set aside to let flavours meld. Sauce may be prepared up to one hour in advance.

2. Set a small cast-iron pan over medium-high heat (or over hot coals). When pan is hot, put in the cheese. Sprinkle with half the oregano and crushed red pepper.

3. Cook for about two minutes, until the bottom begins to brown. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula and cook for two to three minutes more, until the second side is browned and the cheese is beginning to ooze. Transfer cheese to a plate and sprinkle with remaining oregano and crushed red pepper. Serve immediately, accompanied with bread and chimichurri. (Alternatively, finish the cheese by putting it under the broiler or in a hot oven.)

Serves four to six