March 5, 2013

In the winter, I cook in my fireplace.

I’ve been doing this for the past three years, and like any ongoing relationship, I’m getting a little better at it and a little more involved each year. My wife and kids, they think it’s a phase.

But this winter, on a visit to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, I emerged from a garden store carrying a heavy cardboard box.

“What’s that?” my wife said.

“A Tuscan grill!” I said.

Even though people—including my own family—are shocked and surprised and bemused by my obsession, it’s hardly a new idea. A fireplace is just an indoor fire, and people have been cooking on fire for quite some time. Before the advent of the stainless steel range, most cuisine was fireplace cuisine.

Slow-food crusader Alice Waters has been pushing the Tuscan grill, and cooking in the fireplace, for years.

“There is a universal magic in fire that transforms food as it grills,” she writes in her book “The Art of Simple Food.”

“Grilling is nothing like cooking on a stove top or in a gas or electric oven: There's an unpredictability to it, a wild side, an immediacy that sets it apart.”

 For the past few years, I’ve been doing a much more rudimentary version of fireplace cooking: balancing a cast iron pan or griddle against some log, hoping the whole thing won't tip over and conflagrate.  I wrote about here.

I first saw a Tuscan grill in… Tuscany.  We were walking in the town of Greve and I spotted one in a hardware store.  On the plane home I regretted not buying it, and until I found the same model on the Internet, I thought my only recourse was to improvise.  Then I found one at the Ferry Building.

The Tuscan Grill , from a company called Bella Cucina, comes in a cardboard box printed with the words “BELLA CUCINA.” It is from Tuscany, actually from the town of Chianti. It is a two-step assembly. You turn the frame pieces into an L, then secure them with the two included screws. That takes 2 minutes. You screw the wood handles onto the pre-threaded rods. That’s a minute. I had to wedge the feet of the assembled grill under the exposed gas pipe that ignites my fireplace. It fit snugly, and the dark metal blended into my fireplace. And that was it: now I was ready to cook.

As far as I can tell, there is not a lot of literature on fireplace cuisine. The grill itself came with a single printed sheet showing a pictograph of the assembly. Maybe the Tuscans figured every human, descended as we are from millennia of ancestors who only cooked on fire, just intuitively knows how to do it. Indeed, I figured it out.

You light a fire using dry, hard wood. I use oak. You let the logs burn down to hot embers. You place the grill the right distance from the heat—there are three levels on the frame, and moving the grill with the wood handles is easy. You put your food on the grill. It cooks. The first night I made a chicken that I flattened and seasoned with nothing but salt, pepper and olive oil. I wanted to taste what the fire did to it on its own. It gives the meat a sweet, smoky flavor– mouth-watering is the word.

The second night I cooked albacore, which I brushed with teriyaki. The third night, my son’s last before returning to college, I went Chianti style—two 2 “ grass fed kosher rib eye steaks, each 1 ½-2” thick, rubbed with garlic, olive oil salt and pepper. The fourth night, chicken thighs, marinated in date syrup, mustard, soy, garlic—a recipe I learned from my sister in law Etti in Israel.

“We are eating a lot of animals,” my daughter pointed out. We were. It wasn’t just the thrill of a new cooking toy. The fire lit something primal in me. It called out for flesh. Squatting by the embers, I could be naked back in the cave. This is as far from the sterile world of the mnodern kitchen as you can get, and still eat at home.  

 I did supplement with vegetables. One night I grilled portobellos alongside the chicken. I brushed them with olive oil, red wine, balsamic, salt, pepper and garlic. They tasted like steak. I boiled kale, chopped it, mixed it with olive oil, garlic, red pepper and ancovies and set it in a pan on the grate.  It continues to cook and gain a rich, wood-oven edge.  I did the same with chard.  Then, back to dead animals:  whole trout, wrapped in the first grape leaves to appear on my vines.

That next morning I took a break from the slaughter and made eggs. I poured some olive oil in a cast iron pan, set it on the grate. When it was sizzling, I cracked two eggs. They cooked in just over a minute. They were crisp-bottomed, slightly smoky—they might have been the best thing to come out of the flames.

Since that week-long flame-fest, I've made turkey burgers and pizza.  The burgers were moist on the inside, crisp outside. The pizza was less successful– the tops just didn't cook in time.  Lesson learned.  

Now that the weather is warming up (in Los Angeles), I'm using the grill less.  And I miss it.  There is something about cooking by fire that returns us to the roots of cooking; that is, to the essence of what makes us human. 

How to Cook on a Tuscan Grill

1. Before purchasing the Tuscan Grill, check the set-up and dimensions of your fireplace. The supports of the grill are 2 inches high—make sure you have that much clearance.

2. Spray or brush the grill with oil before using.

3. Make a hot fire. I never had to use more than two logs. Allow time for the logs to burn to hot glowing embers. You do not want to cook over leaping flames.

4. Have all your utensils ready: long tongs, a serving platter, heat-proof oven mitts, a knife and fork for cutting meat to test it. I never had to use the mitts because the wood handles stay cool, but then again my hands can tolerate a lot of heat.  Have a flashlight handy too.

5. Let the grill heat over the logs. Add your ingredients. Pay attention to hot and less hot spots on the grill, and move the food around accordingly.

6. Fireplaces cook hot and dry and uniquely. Pay no attention to written cooking times—learn to test for doneness yourself.

7. Be careful. You’re playing with fire.

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