The Allure of Argentina’s Bubbling Cheese

Bubbling melted cheese is hard to resist, whether it’s 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.

Fernando had arranged for a group of friends to have dinner that evening at one of his favorite 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 appetizer 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 noncarnivores, too.