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The Seductions of Live-fire Cooking

by Mary Karlin

Cooking with fire is the oldest form of cookery. Whether outdoors in a wood-fired oven, fire pit, smoker or campfire or indoors in a fireplace, we’re drawn to the process of cooking with fire. Fire is primal and alluring. It’s seductive, elusive and magical. As fire masters we coax the flames to roar forth, then tame them into a fundamental source of fuel.

Cooking with fire is part of a ‘back to tradition’ movement, often times rekindled by childhood memories and family gatherings at the flame. It’s part of the comfort-giving legacy we all carry with us. A growing trend in contemporary cooking speaks to tradition and being connected to the food we cook, whether in a restaurant or at home. It’s about thoughtfully purchasing and preparing simply-prepared food in a healthful way.

The results of this form of cooking are not only the succulent, simply prepared food but also the company, the stories and the COMMUNITY created around the fire.

Home cooks are now acquiring professional equipment for cooking over a wood fire both indoors and outdoors. These include custom installed wood-fired ovens, hearth grills for the fireplace, kamado (ancient Japanese egg-shaped cookers) ceramic cookers, fire pits, smokers and all the accompanying tools for using these culinary toys. We’ve experienced the taste of wood-fired foods at our favorite restaurants and so it goes that we want to duplicate that experience at home.

One of the benefits of live fire cooking is that you don’t need much added seasoning. The flavors from searing and caramelization are captured and developed in the cooking process whether in fast grilling or slow roasting in a wood-fired oven. The food’s moisture is held inside and released at the end when you cut into it just before serving. The seasoned wood or hardwood charcoal fuel imparts additional surface flavor.

Another benefit is there’s less fat needed in this form of cooking making the food healthful yet succulent and packed with natural flavor and nutrition. Then there’s the entertainment element, too. Family and friends gather around the live fire ‘stage’ to cheer on the cook and share their personal tales from cooking around the flame.

If you are a live-fire cooking enthusiast (or have one in your life) wood-fired cooking is a never-ending blazing adventure. This ancient yet contemporary form of cooking is nurturing and satisfying.

Here are some trails you can blaze to :
-wood-fired cooking classes : www.ramekins.com
- in-home tutorials : www.elementsoftaste.com
-simple wood-fired recipes : www.elementsoftaste.com
-cooking resources: www.woodstonehome.com, www.fornobravo.com, www.biggreenegg.com, www.spitjack.com

One last thing. Be a responsible wood-fired cook. Use ethical fuel: fallen or seasoned (dried for 6+ months) hardwood (oak, maple or fruit woods are best ) and hardwood lump charcoal or mesquite charcoal. No lighter fluid or briquettes with fillers or petroleum by products!

Grilled Chicken a la Toscana
Cooked Under Bricks

Preheat wood-fired oven to 475-500 degrees or so. When at heat, leave a small fire in the oven off to the left side.

1 small (preferably free range) chicken, 3- 3 1/2 pounds
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 sprigs each, thyme and rosemary
olive oil for rubbing
kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper

2 pounds firm, ripe plum tomatoes, cut in half
1 pound shallots, skin on, cut in half

4 fire bricks, double wrapped in foil

Remove and discard any lumps of fat from the inside of the chicken. Brine chicken for 2-4 hours (recipe below) in refrigeration. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out.

Place the chicken breast side down on a flat surface. With a pair of poultry shears, split the bird lengthwise along the backbone. Open it out out, and press down with the heel of your hand to flatten completely. Turn the chicken skin side up and approaching from the edge, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Repeat by creating a pocket on the thickest area of each thigh. Shove a sprig of herbs and slivers of garlic into each pocket.

Season the chicken liberally with salt and the cracked pepper.

Using a sharp knife, make slits in the skin near the tail and tuck the wing tips in to secure. The bird should be as flat as possible to ensure even cooking.

In a large cast-iron skillet or clay casserole, heat the olive oil over moderately high heat. When hot but not smoking, place the chicken skin side down in the skillet. Weigh it down with fire bricks wrapped in foil.

Place in the center of the wood-fired oven and and cook until the skin is golden, about 15 minutes. Listen for sizzling! Remove the weights and using tongs (so as not to pierce the skin), turn chicken over. Replace the weights, add the tomatoes and shallots and return to the oven to cook for another 15 minutes. To test for doneness, pierce the thigh with a skewer. The chicken is done
when the juices run clear. You may need to keep the chicken in the oven for another 20 minutes or until it is tender and legs pulls easily from the breast.

Transfer to a platter and cover loosely with foil. Let it rest for at least 10 minutes or up to 20 . Carve and serve warm or at room temperature.

4-6 servings                 Mary Karlin 2006

Roasted Eggplant, Red Pepper and Herb-Goat Cheese Gratin

Preheat oven to 375 degrees or 400 degrees in a wood-fired oven

1 1/2 pounds eggplant, sliced
olive oil
1 cup toasted bread crumbs
1/4 tablespoons almond meal
2 red peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
3 cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 head roasted garlic, mashed
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
pinch of sugar
kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
12 ounces herb-crusted goat cheese, thinly sliced
1/3 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and halved
1/2 cup fresh italian parsley leaves

Sauté the eggplant slices in olive oil for 2 minutes on each side. Set aside on paper towels to drain. Lightly salt. Cut red peppers into pieces similar to the eggplant slices. Combine the tomatoes with the mashed garlic, thyme and salt, sugar and pepper to taste.

Brush a casserole with olive oil and dust with a mixture of bread crumbs and almond meal. Set remainder of crumb mixture aside for later use.

Line the casserole with one third of the tomato mixture. Then layer on slices of eggplant, then goat cheese, then red pepper then bread crumbs followed by sliced olives. Salt and pepper each layer as you go. Repeat layers, finishing casserole with tomatoes, parsley, goat cheese and bread crumb mixture on top.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the casserole is bubbly. remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes before portioning and serving.

Serves 8

Grilled Pizzetta with Caramelized Onions, Prosciutto and Mushrooms

1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 tablespoon dry active yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups AP flour
6 teaspoons olive oil

semolina flour or fine cornmeal for sprinkling

Makes 2- 12 inch pissaladiere

To make dough:
Pour warm water into a bowl and sprinkle the yeast and sugar onto it. Set aside for approximately 10 minutes or until the mixture is foamy. In a food processor, combine the salt, the flour and 3 teaspoons of the olive oil until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl and forms a ball. (Because flours react differently, the dough may require either a little more flour or more water to get to this state.)

Coat the inside of a large bowl with olive oil. Place the dough in the bowl, roll it in the oil. Cover bowl with damp towel or plastic wrap. Place the dough in a warm area and allow it to double in size (about 1- 1 1/2 hours). Remove dough and gently fold four times. Return to bowl and cover for another 30 minutes.

Make the Onion Marmalade.
Preheat grill to 500 degrees.

Onion Marmalade:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, sliced into wedges 1/4 inch thick
3/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
fresh ground white pepper

In large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and saute the onions until translucent (approx. 5-6 minutes). Add the vinegars and a pinch of white pepper. Lower heat, add the sugar and cook until the liquid is almost completely reduced and the onions have 'melted' into a jam (this will take 20-25 minutes).

Remove from heat. Stir in the fresh thyme leaves. Reserve in bowl.

Toppings prepped ahead:
olive oil for brushing
coarse sea salt
1 pound mushrooms, sliced and sauteed
12 oz. sliced prosciutto and shredded
6 oz asiago cheese, cut into shavings

Divide the dough into 6 and roll out each piece on a lightly floured surface to 1/4- 1/2 inch thickness. Sprinkle a pizza peel with semolina flour and set the flattened dough on it. Brush with olive oil.

Grill oiled side down until well marked (about 5-7 minutes). Turn over, brush with olive oil , lightly salt and grill until well marked.

Remove from grill, place on cutting board and top with mushrooms, prosciutto and a few shavings of asiago cheese.

Cut into wedges and serve immediately.

Serves 4-6
Mary Karlin 2006


Mary Karlin is a freelance food writer based in Sonoma, California. She is a staff chef-instructor at Ramekins Culinary School as well as a traveling guest instructor at cooking schools around the country. Visit Mary's website: www.elementsoftaste.com for information about her classes and other great information. Mary is currently working on a book about 'tastes & tales' of wood-fired cooking.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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