Ask a Chef: Cooking Over a Wood Fire

mj-618_348_ask-a-chef-cooking-over-a-wood-fire
 

Recently, I was tasked with starting a fire in a friend's fireplace. Among our group of about seven people, shivering and hungover in the living room the morning after a January wedding, I seemed to be the only one unafraid to take up the task. It's not as impressive as it sounds though — there were starter logs. I basically had to light a match and the rest took care of itself. Still, I poked and prodded at it as I'd seen my grandpa do many a time, tapping into some cavewoman knowledge of where the embers should be placed and how to stack the logs in a crosshatch so air could circulate. Long story short, fire is cool as hell.

Cooking over fire is even cooler, and I’m not talking about on your stovetop burners. Chef Steve Redzikowski of Acorn in Denver specializes in wood-fired cooking, which gives you a "slightly smoky but charred flavor that you can’t get anywhere else." It also works for just about anything you’re cooking, from large cuts of meat to delicate spring vegetables.


Unfortunately, you're going to need outdoor space. Redzikowski would "not advise attempting this indoors," but the good news is you don't need a grill. "You can make your own garbage can grill," says Redzikowski. "Use a steel or aluminum garbage can, build a base using newspaper and cardboard (make sure the cardboard doesn’t have any wax on it – it’ll leave a bad taste if it does), stack briquettes like a pyramid to allow oxygen to flow, light it up with a blowtorch/lighter/match (do not use starter fluid as it'll impart a bad taste in your food), then add small pieces and shards of wood. Top it with a grate." That’s not even including the added bonus of feeling like you’re in Mad Max. Of course you can use a charcoal grill, or build a smoker on a gas grill by placing some pieces of oak in an aluminum tray, covering it, and poking holes in the top. As the grill heats up the tray, the wood will start to smoke.

As for what wood to use, Redzikowski prefers red or white oak, because "it burns hotter and generates more heat than most other wood, which is great for getting an initial sear on meats. The flavors that oak imparts in food are relatively mild but still unique." Hickory and mesquite are good if you’re doing barbecue, but you should never use pine, since it doesn’t burn clean. Redzikowski also specifies that you shouldn’t cook over the flame itself, which you should remember from the marshmallow roasting technique you perfected as a child. Instead, cook over the embers and coals. You can accomplish this by building a large fire on one side of the grill, and continually pushing the embers toward the opposite side where you’re cooking.


Of course the technique is great for steaks and burgers, but you can absolutely get creative. Grill a pizza, or some fruit. Have you ever seared a slice of pie on a grill? It’ll change your life. And I'm sure with a little ingenuity you could figure out how to pull this off indoors as long as you have a fire extinguisher ready. Actually, that's just good advice in general.

Steve Redzikowski's grilled artichokes and Burrata

Ingredients

  • 2 large artichokes (peel all the outsides and stem)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 tbsp chopped thyme
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 7 Calabrian chilies
  • ¼ cup golden raisins
  • 8 tbsp of burrata cheese
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  1. Cut the artichokes in half, remove the choke and toss in mixture of salt, pepper, thyme and 1 tbsp of olive oil. Place on hot grill so that the flat side of artichoke is face down for 2-3 minutes, or until there’s some color. Flip over artichokes and place on cooler edge of the grill; cook slow and low for 12 minutes. To check if artichokes are ready, put paring knife into stem; it should go in easily without much resistance. Take artichokes off grill.
  2. Roughly chop the Calabrian chilies and golden raisins until fine and scoop mixture into the cavity of the artichoke. Top that with burrata cheese (2 tablespoons of burrata cheese in each half).
  3. Place breadcrumbs and 2 tbsp of olive oil in sauté pan and stir over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, or until golden brown. Pull off heat and add parsley. Sprinkle on top of artichokes.