Chefs’ Roundtable column: Cooking in the great outdoors
From community garden plots, to home delivery of organic foods, to buying a share of a cow from a local farm, it seems like people want to eat clean and “live off the land,” or get as close as possible without actually owning a farm.
So, for your next adventure in living off the land, try cooking an entire meal over a wood fire.
“It’s a soulful experience. The method has integrity, it’s artisanal, and there’s a natural element to working with heat,” said Thomas Salamunovich, chef and owner of Larkspur Restaurant in Vail.
Salamunovich started cooking with fire during the Northern California food revolution in the ’80s and ’90s, when he worked alongside Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck in restaurants that promoted cooking with wood.
“My first choice in cooking anything would be outside, over a wood fire,” said Salamunovich. “The flavor palette is so unique – it can transcend the natural flavors of any food.”
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Grilling over wood is an instinctive process, and more rewarding than cooking on a gas grill or stovetop. Whether you wrap a trout in foil with butter, lemon and fresh herbs and toss it right on the coals; roast shrimp in a sleek steel grill fry pan from Williams-Sonoma; or grill Colorado peaches in a cast iron skillet finished with artisan ricotta and Tamarisk honey, all food cooked over a wood fire has something in common. It’s permeated with that subtle smoky flavor.
No smoke means no love
At Kirby Cosmo’s in Minturn, chef owner Mark Tamberino slow cooks his pork ribs over low, indirect heat with peach wood from the Clark Family farm in Palisade.
“The beauty of a wood fire is that you can dial in a cooking strategy and achieve that rustic flavor. If there’s no smoke, there’s no love,” Tamberino said.
Start with the grill; the simpler the better. You can build a grill enclosure out of old bricks or stones and set the grate from your gas grill on top, or you can upgrade to an adjustable campfire grill from Spitjack (spitjack.com). If you want to maximize that smoky flavor, Tamberino recommends the Big Green Egg (biggreenegg.com) for the home chef.
“It’s user friendly and can make you look like a hero on the grill,” he said.
Wood comes in all flavors – oak, cherry, peach, apple, hickory and mesquite (at Home Depot). Tamberino prefers peach wood. “I like the control I have over the heat,” he said. “It’s all about the flavor you get from wood.”
Salamunovich plans to use Lazzari mesquite lump charcoal at Larkspur’s Harvest Lunch on Sunday, part of the Gourmet on Gore events, because it burns hotter and lasts longer than briquettes and “doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the food,” he said.
Now that you have your grill set up, plan about two hours to get the fire ready.
“Let the first fire burn down to embers and then add another layer of wood. It’s the second fire that creates that deep heat you want to cook on,” Salamunovich said.
End of summer feasting
Try an easy end of summer feast you can cook on the fire by grilling Olathe corn combined with the last cherry tomatoes of the season paired with grilled trout or, as Salamunovich suggests, sumac chimichurri on butterflied leg of lamb served over a mesquite grilled garden citronette. (See the recipe, alongside.)
The heat of the embers, their location under your grate and how close the grate is to your embers will all dictate how long to cook the lamb and where it needs to be on the grill. Move the lamb around on the grill to achieve that perfect caramelized outer crust, but only turn the meat once.
For the Citronette, the recipe is more intuitive than exact. The idea is to grill whatever vegetables you like. As a side dish you can wilt rocket or kale in a stainless steel bowl right on the grill with a little pressed lemon oil and late harvest vinegar.
Want to learn more about wood fired grilling? Visit Kirby Cosmo’s in Minturn for some “pig wings” and authentic southern barbecue, or find them at the Minturn and Vail farmer’s markets.
This Labor Day weekend, join Larkspur Restaurant at a communal table outside by the garden and grill for a five-course meal including the Sumac Chimichurri and lamb cooked over a wood fire with ingredients from Larkspur’s garden and local farms. Call Larkspur at 970-754-8050 for more information.
Whether you watch seasoned chefs in action or build a fire in your back yard, enjoy a long slow meal with family and friends this weekend and put the rustic flavor of wood fire in your food.
Kelly Brinkerhoff is a freelance writer and consultant for Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur (www.larkspurvail.com), at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999.