Washington Cooks: Tim Artz, a man and his fire

Oakton resident Tim Artz likes to make food from scratch. Lots of it, in lots of different ways. Here's a look at some of what he makes for twice-a-month "cookfests."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What do you call a guy who smokes meat, brews beer, grows fruit and vegetables, keeps honeybees, cultivates mushrooms, bakes bread, makes cheese, cures bacon, grinds sausage, pickles cornichons, bottles his own signature hot sauces and walnut liqueur, cooks dinner every night and puts together one heck of a spiced pear galette?

Lots of clever answers may come to mind. Obsessed chef. Full-time geek. Every woman's (and/or man's) fantasy mate.

But the correct one is: Tim Artz.

His friends and Oakton neighbors call themselves lucky, because Artz likes to share. His wife, Dot, deserves credit for going along with whatever gastronomic project her husband wants to try next. That includes their 70,000 to 100,000 bees, which she is allergic to. She doesn't cook. "I can, but there's no use," she says. "I don't enjoy it like Tim does."

By day, Artz works as director of a medical info-tech company, a job that calls for a fair amount of travel. Yet he manages to find 15 or 20 "relaxing and therapeutic" hours each week to feed his passion (and cook meals for his family for the times he's away). Trained as an electrical engineer, he is a modern pioneer, and he has created an admirable suburban frontier. He might start with a recipe he finds online or in a book, but exploration and invention are part of a process that ends in a glass or on a plate.

Acquiring all those super skills could puff up anybody's chest. However, Artz comes across as a low-key, unassuming guy. He's happy to explain what he has learned along the way, but you have to ask.

The time he spends is evident in almost every corner of the Artzes' split-level home: a kaffir lime tree in the living room, which yields the otherwise hard-to-find leaves he uses in several ways; dozens of seedlings and filled canning jars in the basement; some serious home-brewing equipment in the enclosed porch; and a ceramic fermenting pot in the kitchen.

On about an acre of land, Artz, 47, manages more than a half-dozen large raised garden beds, surrounded by beat-up chain-link fencing to keep out the deer. "They can just crash through when they really want to," he shrugs. He produces 50 pounds of garlic per year; many varieties of peppers, tomatoes and lettuce; plus string beans, blackberries and more. His FoodSaver vacuum sealer gets quite a workout.

There are apple trees and pear trees; in one corner of the yard, disintegrating logs of white oak are used to support spore-infused dowels of shiitake mushrooms that Artz orders online: "A thousand plugs cost $40 and produce about 50 pounds of mushrooms a year," he says. "Who wouldn't do that, to save money?" The mushrooms go into the freezer or dehydrator and get cooked down to extract concentrated mushroom juice, a favorite flavor booster of Artz's. An herb garden around front contains the usual suspects plus wormwood, in case Artz gets around to making an absinthe mead.

Artz's DIY spirit has roots in Lancaster, Pa., where he and Dot grew up. His grandfather had a large garden. Artz started his own compost pile and garden when he was in the fifth grade. In his home, people canned and pickled and hunted and fished. He went camping and fell in love with what fire does for meat. The couple's 7-year-old son, Ben, hasn't felt as inspired, but Dot says he does have a remarkably developed palate.

"I think this was a natural progression to barbecue and smoked foods," Tim says. "That, in turn, led to charcuterie and cheesemaking," two activities Artz has taken up within the past five years or so.

The meat-fire axis is also responsible for the Porkulator, a black barrel smoker on steroids that Artz built 16 years ago. He got an old oil tank from his dad and welded it to a heavy-metal screen on wheels, with a firebox that's accustomed to a diet of black cherry, pecan and hickory oak. Its trailer rig has a license so the Artzes can take it on the road.

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