Cook it in the fireplace

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I strapped on my snowshoes the other day and made my way to a neighbor's to borrow a cast-iron pot. Since we suddenly seem to be living in the Arctic, I'm going back to basics and cooking over a real hardwood fire. For the day's menu, I needed a pot with a lid.

The kitchen gods have blessed me with a fireplace, so it has been an easy step from stove to hearth. I grew up in Minnesota and know the importance of a fire in times of chill and darkness. Until recently, though, I'd forgotten it could feed the body as well as the soul.

Then I was at a party where oysters in the shell were being put on a grill, in the fireplace. They popped open and were immediately removed to a tray. They were perfect, with a slight smoky taste that did not overpower the fresh sea flavor of the plump, buttery mollusks. The briny liquid left in the shell was the only sauce necessary.

Our host was doing this magic on a simple contraption he called a Tuscan grill. Several types are commercially available, but the design is similar: a heavy steel frame that fits in the fireplace, usually with adjustable levels that hold a grill with long wood handles. I needed one. Immediately.

You can buy them online but less easily in area stores (Sur La Table and Hill's Kitchen carry them). After a winter like this one, that might change. Grilling in the fireplace is a good skill to learn if Washington has indeed entered a new climate zone. If you've lost power for 36 hours, the fireplace is there for you.

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." On CBS's "60 Minutes" last year, Waters coated the bowl of a long-handled spoon with olive oil, broke an egg into it and held it to cook over embers in the open-hearth fireplace in her kitchen. "I love that sense of cooking . . . when you're just almost camping," she tells Lesley Stahl.

If you don't have a fireplace in the kitchen, you can go camping in the living room or the playroom or wherever the fire is. When I was growing up on the tundra, we had a fireplace in the family room. It had a grill on a crane so that it pivoted into and out of the fire. On wintry Sunday nights we made popcorn, roasted chestnuts and sometimes grilled steaks. Then we watched "Bonanza." Right; a long time ago.

Cooking over fire goes back even further than that, of course. Ever since man discovered fire, man has cooked over fire. Gas and electric ranges have been around for only 100 years or so.

For many people, the whole point of a grill is steak. It's simple, yet elegant. Season with salt and pepper (a little olive oil mixed with rosemary is good, too, if you want to get fancy), slap the meat on the lightly oiled grill, and in about 20 minutes you have tender, wood-smoke-flavored meat with a slightly caramelized crust and beautiful grill marks. In Tuscany, the famous bistecca all fiorentina uses meat from Chianina, a cattle breed dating back to ancient Rome. In the United States, rib-eye or porterhouse steaks, cut about 1 1/2 inches thick, are reasonable substitutes.

With a lot of snowbound time, I continued to experiment.

I watched an online video showing how to cook a chicken on a string in the fireplace. Just nail a hook into the mantle; truss the chicken, leaving enough string to attach it to the hook; and it dangles in front of the fire, just like on YouTube. Except mine never cooked. Probably not close enough to the heat. Maybe not enough heat. This is a common way to cook chicken, and string-turned lamb is a French standard, so don't let me discourage you.

Then I discovered the classic Tuscan pollo al mattone, chicken under a brick. A small roasting chicken is butterflied; marinated in lemon, rosemary, garlic and olive oil; then put on a fireplace grill and weighted down with bricks or other heavy objects. Because it is flattened, the chicken cooks quickly, producing crisp skin and moist, fragrant meat.

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