Why you should care
Because cold meat slathered in mayo might just become your next favorite holiday dish.
It’s Christmas Eve in Buenos Aires, and everyone is wearing sundresses and sandals and sipping drinks by the pool. Because it’s humid and 86F. Later, people will be ripping open presents at the stroke of midnight then crawling into bed after 2 am fireworks. But before that comes the main event: the eating. And here in the land of gauchos and meat, Christmas dinner gives top billing to beef and its byproducts — but in preparations you likely won’t have seen before.
An Argentine holiday meal is a beautiful thing in more ways than one. Inventive, heritage-rich dishes take center stage, with all of them warm climate-friendly so that you can enjoy eating while avoiding heatstroke. Plus, they can be prepared in advance. Want to spend more time with your family this holiday season, but also wow with unique and delicious Christmas nosh? Try some Argentine classics instead of the traditional turkey-centric feast. Just be prepared to deal with excessive amounts of mayo … and some tongue peeling.
The first thing you’ll want to get used to: The food will be served cold. (But how wonderful if your Christmases don’t include snow or sub-zero temperatures!) Three dishes you’ll find on most every Argentine Christmas table? Vitel toné (cold veal served with a creamy tuna sauce), lengua a la vinagreta (braised beef tongue covered with a garlic-heavy vinaigrette) and pionono (sponge cake rolled around a mix of ham, cheese, mayo and hardboiled eggs and sliced into festive pinwheels). Most recipes are fully prepped and finished before the big day, and Argentine chef Cesar Bartolini explains why: “We do all these cold sharing dishes so that we can all spend more time around the table enjoying with family and loved ones than in the kitchen.”
Two of these festive dishes didn’t even originate in Argentina. The sweet and savory dessert pionono comes from Spain, where the cylinder-shaped cake was originally made to resemble Pope Pius IX (and is named after him), and the other dish is Italian influenced. “After the Second World War, a lot of Italian immigrants came over, and we have them to thank for vitel toné,” explains Bartolini, who is the chef de cuisine at Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen & Bar at Atlantis in London and author of The Food and Cooking of Argentina: 65 Traditional Recipes from the Heart of South America.
Serve the plate of flavorful meat with a vinagreta — which Najmanovich likens to a salad dressing “with a lot of parsley and a shitload of garlic.”
But while this classic Argentine Christmas spread might sound impressive, these dishes are not particularly difficult to cook. For example, the hardest part of making lengua a la vinagreta is peeling the tongue, says Mica Najmanovich, Argentine chef and co-owner of Buenos Aires restaurant Anafe. Her advice: Braise the tongue until it’s tender, then peel it using a sharp paring knife; after it cools, slice it very thin. Serve the plate of flavorful meat with a vinagreta — which Najmanovich likens to a salad dressing “with a lot of parsley and a shitload of garlic.” The dish pairs especially well with a glass of Argentine red (of course it does!). And better yet, requires none of the constant basting and checking of a traditional Christmas turkey.
But if your holidays wouldn’t be complete without a slightly dry white meat slathered in enough sauce to be delicious, try making vitel toné. Thin slices of boiled veal get coated with a creamy, caper and mayo-heavy sauce. It tastes even better the next day on a sandwich — a favorite of Najmanovich, who is Jewish but prepares a Christmas feast each year at her restaurant. “It’s such a great dish. Why aren’t we eating that every fucking day of the year? Why doesn’t every sandwich place have vitel toné sandwiches?” she asks, rightly furious.
I don’t know the answer. I do know that when you make your leftover veal sandwiches that you should pick thin slices of bread as to not soak up all of the sauce — and that a leftover turkey sandwich will then forever pale in comparison.
To make vitel toné in all of its mayonnaise glory, try Bartolini’s recipe — he serves a version of the following at his restaurant every holiday season. Feel free to tell everyone it’s turkey breast.
Recipe Vitel Toné
This recipe is from Chef Cesar Bartolini
- 2¼ pounds rose veal eye round
- 1 small carrot, cut in half
- 1 Spanish onion, cut in quarters
- 2 celery sticks, cut in half
- 2 bay leaves
- Few sprigs of thyme
- Pinch of rock salt
- Cold water
- 12 salted anchovies
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tablespoons salted capers + 1 teaspoon salted capers (for garnish)
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 9 ounces tuna (tinned in oil or brine)
- 7 tablespoons double cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, grated
- 4 tablespoons of chives, finely chopped
- Place the veal in a pot with the vegetables, bay leaves, thyme and a pinch of salt.
- Cover with cold water.
- Cook at medium heat for 1 to 1½ hours or until tender.
- In a food processor or blender add the anchovies, garlic, 2 tablespoons of capers, mustard, lemon juice and tuna. Blend to a paste.
- Place the tuna paste into a mixing bowl.
- Add mayonnaise and cream.
- Mix well with a whisk. Refrigerate until needed.
- Once the veal is done, remove from the stock and cool.
- Slice meat into half-inch thick pieces and place onto a large serving tray or individual plates.
- Spoon the sauce over the meat and garnish with grated eggs, capers, chopped chives, a drizzle of olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.
Tip: If you find yourself in Buenos Aires over the holidays and you’d like to try some traditional Christmas foods, visit El Imparcial. It’s the oldest restaurant in the city with a big dining room, old-school chandelier, and an extensive menu of cold meats (on which vitel toné and lengua a la vinagreta take places of pride).