The Sandpoint Eater: Gracias, universe

By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Columnist

In 1977, I went to Bogota, Colombia, and fell in love — with the architecture, the people, the food and the vibrant culture, especially the cumbia (lively music and traditional folk dance). I made two repeat trips before marriage and children became the focus of my life. After that, my adventures in South America became fond memories. Though I vowed to go back, life continued to guide me elsewhere.  

Last week I had the opportunity to return to South America, albeit this trip was farther south, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was a quick trip to a travel show with speed-dating style appointments, learning about Central and South American destinations. I spent the evenings in magnificent historic venues, entertained with live tango shows and feasting on savory and spicy empanadas encased in rich, flaky crusts, tender beef and spicy chorizo cooked over open flames.

The food was delicious, and though it was my first visit to Buenos Aires, it was not my first introduction to the cuisine. For years, I frequented an Argentinian steakhouse in Chicago that served melt-in-your-mouth asado with piquant chimichurri sauce and my favorite cheese dish, provoleta — a provolone-style cheese, grilled over open flames, then baked.

I’ve made provoleta for years (even preparing it for a malbec wine pairing tasting at I Saw Something Shiny). It’s a great first course or vegetarian entrée for a Latin-style meal, and my palate was pleased, as it was the first appetizer on a 10-course tasting menu on my second night. I snapped a quick photo of the bubbling dish of aromatic cheese for reference, hoping to find a similar serving piece before my departure.  

On my last day, armed with the photo, I headed to Mercado de San Telmo, a beautiful old market initially built to satisfy the shopping needs of the influx of European settlers arriving at the turn of the 20th century. Today, it houses dozens of shops selling spices, antiques, vintage tango records and many small restaurants with a lively, central eating area. 

I had no luck finding the cooking vessel, but learned a single stall — called Hierro Parrilla — prepared authentic provoleta, and I found my way there. I chose to sit at the hot counter, watching the crew banter while deftly preparing food and tending the red-hot, wood-burning fires with precision, and moving asado, chorizo and tomatoes around on the grates until grilled to perfection.

The provoleta arrived in a cast iron pan with multiple warnings of muy caliente! It was fragrant, lightly browned and bubbling, resting atop a bed of sauteed onions and grill-roasted tomatoes. I complimented the proprietor, Rodrigo, and soon we were swapping stories, as I explained that I was there for a travel community event. Rodrigo then brought over two ladies for an introduction — Angie, the sales director of a luxury hotel (who by coincidence had attended the same show as me), and her good friend, Barbara, a luxury goods designer.  

I showed them the photo of the dish I was hoping to find at the market, and it was then that the universe got busy. In Barbara’s hands were two boxes containing provoleta dishes made by her family’s ceramic business, Patagonia Caliente Vajilla, in Bariloche, Argentina. Barbara was bringing them to her friend Rodrigo, hoping he’d be interested in using them for his provoleta at Hierro Parrilla. But, instead, Barbara thrust one of them into my hands and insisted this exquisite gift was mine.

Angie left, and Barbara and I sat together like fast friends, trading even more stories while she had a quick lunch before her flight to Bariloche. If it hadn’t been for airport deadlines, we might still be there, lingering over conversation with Rodrigo, his melt-in-your-mouth steak asado, sipping Angelica Zapata Alta malbec. And, if that weren’t enough, as I was leaving, Rodrigo dashed to the gift shop next door and presented me with a pingüino (a small penguin-shaped vessel for serving wine). I left happy and humble, with a promise to return.

On the long flight home, I closed my eyes to relive my time at Hierro Parrilla, savoring the best provoleta I’ve ever tasted. I couldn’t wait to get home and recreate this cheese dish for you. Gracias, universe.

Provoleta recipe • This dish is very popular as a first course to asado, also a great entrée for vegetarians. It was first created in Argentina (about 1940) by an Italian, combining his love for meat and cheese. Be careful not to burn yourself (or guests), as the pan must be very hot. You can also try cooking on your hot grill outdoors and play with additional condiment flavors, like roasted tomato and onions. Make the chimichurri a couple hours before grilling/baking the cheese.



• ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

• ½ cup minced parsley 

• 1 tbs fresh oregano, chopped

• 2 garlic cloves, minced

• ½ tsp crushed red pepper

• Coarse black pepper 

• Sea salt

• 1 tbs red wine vinegar 

• 2 tbs very cold water


• 8 ounce provolone cheese slice (about an 1 inch thick), warmed to room temperature 

• 2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped 

• ½ tsp crushed red pepper



In a glass bowl, whisk together olive oil, parsley, oregano, garlic, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper, vinegar and water. Make the sauce a couple hours before serving so flavor develops. 


Preheat the pan in the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Carefully remove from oven and place cheese slab in the hot skillet. Sprinkle with oregano and crushed chili and return to oven. Bake on top shelf about 3 minutes. Remove from oven, cover the skillet with aluminum foil and bake in the bottom rack of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove the foil, and broil on top rack until golden and bubbly — about 2-3 minutes, watching carefully!

Serve cautiously and immediately in the hot skillet, accompanied with baguette slices and chimichurri.

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