Get campfire cooking tips in ‘Mallmann on Fire’

campfire cooking
“Snow is a language I understand. I think in Spanish. I babble in English. I munch French. I sing Portuguese. I make my way around some German poems. I speak snow.” Photo courtesy of Santiago Soto Monllor

Ingredients change, as do traditions, but the use of fire underpins celebrated dishes everywhere, and no one illustrates this better than acclaimed cookbook author and grilling purist Francis Mallmann. In his new book, “Mallmann on Fire,” the Argentine chef hits the road doing what he does best—distilling his adventures into campfire cooking recipes that foodies can prepare anywhere during any season.

“Just like you might pack a favorite sweater for a journey, I take my grill wherever I go. For this book, I traveled from Patagonia to Paris, from Brazil to Berkeley locating new ingredients, building fires, making meals that let fire work its timeless magic. All I need—all anyone needs—for this primal pleasure is flame and food,” writes Francis Mallmann in his introduction.

Indeed, “Mallmann on Fire” takes the reader to the most influential places in Mallmann’s life—Paris; New York; Garzón, Uruguay; Trancoso, Brazil; La Ruta Azul, Patagonia; and his lake retreat in the Argentine highlands—and uses them as a backdrop for 100 campfire recipes that you can grill in the snow, on the sand, or in crowded streets.

campfire cooking
“If there is wood or charcoal to burn, and local ingredients to be had, one can find a way to make something delicious.” Photo courtesy of Santiago Soto Monllor

For this book, Mallmann scaled down his recipes for a portable chapa skillet, for which no ingredient was too challenging. For example, he introduces a foolproof technique for pan-roasting his Cowboy Rib Eye a la Plancha, he crusts lean chicken in a galette of thinly-sliced potatoes, and elevates the most humble root vegetables with recipes like his Grilled Carrots with Aged Ricotta and Oregano on Toast. He even tackles dessert.

Mallman on Fire
No matter where your travels take you, one language remains universal: the language of food. Photo courtesy of “Mallmann on Fire”

Throughout, readers are treated to Mallmann’s authoritative philosophy that life is best enjoyed outdoors and in the moment: “A warm, sunny late afternoon . . . should not be the only time you cook out of doors. Cold days, windy days, snowy days, rainy days, dark and cloudy days all have their charms and challenges to the builder of fires and the griller of food.”

Mallmann’s effortless, entertaining style plainly demonstrates that a steward of the hearth is always a welcome addition.

We had the opportunity to connect with the outdoorsy gastronome and this is what he shared:

When and how did your love affair with fire cooking begin?
I think it started during my childhood living in Patagonia. Fire was a constant part of growing up for my two brothers and me. Every morning we would split some kindling to start the three fires that warmed us, heated our water, and fed our huge kitchen stove.

Describe in a sentence or two what it means, to you, to cook out-of-doors?
For most people, the mere thought of grabbing a basket packed with a picnic and thinking of an outdoor space to enjoy is just that—only a thought. Cooking outdoors captures the romance of a place and creates a moment where you can remain silent beside the aura of fire.

What are your fire cooking essentials? What do you use when you travel and have limited supplies?
A cast iron pan, olive oil, and bread. When you travel, you cook with what is there, not with what you want to be there. That forces you to think and create.

campfire cooking
“You certainly don’t need an expensive barbecue grill that looks like the command console of a space station. A simple grate propped up with rocks over a fire on the ground is all that fifteen generations of gauchos have used to turn out their grilled masterpieces.” Photo courtesy of Santiago Soto Monllor and Quentin Bacon

Do you have any fire cooking shortcuts to share?
Add salt just before roasting, and don’t flip and flap your ingredients around. Be patient and cook slowly.

What are your top fire cooking tips for someone new to the method?
Be attentive, and stay aware of the wind! The weather can affect temperature and timing. Wind can blow heat away from the coals or can cause the coals to burn more intensely.

What mistake do beginners make when cooking with fire, and how can they avoid it?
Many beginners try cooking food on direct flame. Avoid it and instead make use of the mature, glowing coals.

campfire cooking
“When you travel, you cook with what is there, not with what you want to be there. That forces you to think and create.” Photo courtesy of Nicolas Colledani

What are the essentials of an ideal cooking fire? How do you build it and maintain it?
There is so much you can do with a fire that you replenish for long cooking. At first, a charcoal fire burns hot, which is superb for grilling thin cuts of meat and vegetables on a chapa, or griddle. Then, when the coals are covered with white ash, what I refer to as a mature bed of coal, the fire is suitable for caramelizing, slow-roasting—any parilla, or grill, recipe.

One of the main differences between Argentine and North American styles of grilling is that we often add mature coals to the fire for longer cooking, rather than lighting more coals and waiting for them to burn down. The best way to do this is to start some more charcoal in a separate spot (a second grill or any fireproof surface is quite handy for this purpose). Then add the already burning coals to your cooking fire once they are uniformly glowing. Rake the coals into larger piles for high heat, or spread them out evenly for more even lower heat.

campfire cooking
“Make the fire fit the food.” Photo courtesy of Santiago Soto Monllor

What fireside cooking essentials do you recommend spending money on, and what can be purchased inexpensively?
A simple iron grill is great. You can improvise your own or use a conventional kettle grill. A large, cast-iron griddle can serve as a chapa both outdoors on a grill grate over a wood or charcoal fire or indoors over a conventional gas or electric burner. You can also have a blacksmith weld you an iron plancha with one-foot legs on it.

What is a favorite fire recipe you could share?
A steak, like the Cowboy Rib Eye a la Plancha. You only need salt and a hot grill, but make sure to be attentive when cooking it.

You did quite a bit of traveling for your new book; share with us a highlight that occurred and why it stands out?
Any time that you gather with people and build a fire, you work a timeless magic. All I need—all anyone needs—for this primal pleasure is flame and food, and hunger that inspires the chef in all of us.

Chef Mallmann
Chef Mallmann at home in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Santiago Soto Monllor

If you could host anyone (living or dead) for an intimate fire meal, who would you invite and why?
I would host President Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir, because of their passion for wilderness.

Where do you still want to travel that you haven’t been?
I just want to stay home in Patagonia. It is an immense and beautiful land. Mountains, deserts, and coast: We have them all.

Francis Mallmann is the reigning star of food television in the Spanish-speaking world and the most famous and popular chef in South America. His first book, “Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way” (Artisan Books, 2009), introduced readers to the secrets and flavors of traditional live-fire cooking. He has three restaurants: one in Mendoza, Argentina’s wine country; another in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires; and the third in the picturesque village of Garzón, Uruguay. USA Today and The Times (U.K.) have named his restaurants among the top 10 places to eat in the world. His new book is Mallmann on Fire (Artisan Books, 2014).

Don’t get your fires started without a copy.

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