Buenos Aires marked a new beginning. My partner J and I had recently reconnected so were embarking on a new life together. So when he phoned me up out of blue and said, “I’m going to South America, would you like to come with me?” I quit my job on the spot and gave up the lease on the lovely thatched roofed cottage I couldn’t afford. First stop – Paris of the South!
What was so wonderful (and hard to explain) was that this was an open-ended kind of adventure. We started in Buenos Aires and vaguely planned wanted to make our way to Chile and beyond. The only ‘rule’ was that we didn’t want to be typical tourists. So with limited and rather unreliable information gleaned from sketchy websites, we booked a room with a shared bathroom and kitchen and stayed for six months.
I will never forget how surreal it was, that first day. All the smells were different. J woke up before dawn with jet lag and explored the city on his own. It was his ideal city, people leave you alone, there’s plenty of fascinating old buildings and grand avenues to explore and it was great for walking. We loved to visit bakeries and cafés where we gorged ourselves on medialunas– small crescent-shaped croissants glazed with caramelised syrup and ricotta cheesecake. I loved the exceptional gelato which is said to rival Rome’s in sheer deliciousness. It was also a daily mission to scour the many second hand shops where we found many a treasure including a silk petticoat from the 1940s, the grand era of Eva Perrón.
I marvelled at the strange discoveries in the supermarket, piles of fresh vegetables and weird yoghurt yet not a fresh chilli in sight! I had bought into the South American cliché of exotic women everywhere wearing bright clothes and eating spicy food. But the Buenos Aires we got in 2006 was in post financial meltdown decline (their currency had once been as strong as the American dollar) and everyone was a bit down on their luck. Most restaurants served the same bland menu of plain pizza and paper-thin ham and cheese sandwiches. There wasn’t much variety, which is hard to believe now that the economy has recovered and Buenos is one of the most exciting food destinations in the world. But there was one thing to be found in abundance and that was steak. Now I am not an avid meat eater, I was a vegetarian for 15 years, yet it sort of fell by the wayside during this trip. I thought, well, this is the beef capital of the world, let me give it a try.
So, while meandering through the marvellous antique market of San Telmo, we passed a small restaurant with a gilded window on which was printed “La Viejo Rotissería”. Viejo means old in Spanish so we knew this place had gravitas. A grumpy, middle-aged waiter in a long, white apron treated us like the tourists we were trying not to be – with more than a hint of disdain but still seating us at a table for two. He gestured towards the salad bar in Spanish, leading us to understand that the salad was included in the price. I approached, gingerly, with a side plate in my hand and was startled by the sight of a gleaming stainless steel bain-marie, heaped with a variety of gorgeous vegetables, cracking with freshness. I heaped my plate with chopped greens, baby spinach and shaved fennel, drenched in a delectable dressing.
I couldn’t help thinking back to the now iconic (and luckily defunct) Salad Valley of ye olde Spur steak ranch. What a sad sight it was, and the exact opposite of this experience. Then… the steak arrived. I had ordered a ladies’ portion, which is ironic as I am usually really greedy! But from the many years of eating mostly plant protein, I had always found steak very difficult to digest. Set before me was a small, buttery rump steak enveloped in the most delicate blue cheese sauce and served with scalloped potatoes, a first for me. What a pleasure, and what a steak! The best I have ever eaten. And to my surprise, no strain to the digestive system whatsoever, thanks to the perfect prefix: a fresh salad full of roughage.
Nowadays I still don’t really go for beef, opting instead for free range chicken or venison. In the Eastern Cape, good venison is easy to obtain and super cheap, with my favourite local butcher, Connock’s, often going on hunting trips at one of the many surrounding game farms. I like to get their springbok steaks, which they sometimes tenderise for me. This most satisfying salad is inspired by the game-changing combination of fresh greens and juicy steak, with a South African punch of umami flavour – Marmite.
Springbok steak salad
400g plain springbok or kudu steaks – tenderised with a meat mallet between two sheets of cling film
1 packet of mixed leaf lettuce with herbs
1 medium carrot, scraped and grated
200g baby beetroot, cooked and halved
1 log of Fairview Chevin in dukkah, sliced into rounds
200g of cherry tomatoes, halved
3 T homemade garlic vinaigrette, or to taste
Dukkah, to taste (optional)
3 T balsamic vinegar
2 T soya sauce
1 tsp Melissa’s chilli ginger jam
1 tsp Woolworths lamb rub seasoning
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp roasted cumin, whole
½ tsp roasted coriander, ground
1 tsp Marmite
50ml of red wine
Dash of balsamic reduction
Salt and pepper, to taste
Whisk all the ingredients for the marinade (except for the lamb seasoning, cumin and coriander) together in a bowl. Rub the steaks all over with the dry spices and place either in a Ziploc bag or a casserole dish with a lid. Coat with the marinade and allow to marinate in the fridge for at least 6 hours.
When you are ready to eat, preheat a cast iron pan and remove the steaks from the marinade and pat dry, reserving the marinade. Rub the steaks with olive oil and sear in the hot pan. Cook to your liking and remove from the pan. Season and allow to rest.
Meanwhile, arrange the lettuce on a large platter, followed by the carrots, the tomatoes and the beetroot. Drizzle with the vinaigrette.
Put the same pan back on the heat and add the marinade as well as the red wine. Turn up the heat to reduce, stirring all the while with a wooden spoon so that no bits stick to the bottom. When the jus is fairly reduced, add the Marmite, honey and balsamic reduction. You should have a black, glossy sauce that coats the back of a spoon. Check the seasoning and add salt only if needed. Turn off the heat.
Slice the cooked steaks into strips and toss in the pan, coating with the jus.
When still warm but not sizzling hot, arrange on top of the salad, ending with generous slices of goat’s cheese. Sprinkle with dukkah if desired.