Interviewer: "If your house were burning down and you could take one thing, what would it be?" Jean Cocteau: "The fire."
"'Fire cooking' is actually a misnomer. You're cooking over the embers," said Joshua Skenes, chef-owner of Saison in San Francisco and one of Food and Wine's Best New Chefs of 2011.
Sometimes, you don't even need the embers, as he demonstrated:
1. Use a broom to compress the mbers in the corner, clearing just enough space for a small pot.
2. Use the cleared space, the hot bricks, as a "stovetop" for cooking.
Josh has become famous for his use of fire. He has classical training and loves his high-end Japanese Nenohi knives, but nothing captures his imagination quite like the open flame. The back of his business card sports three words, stark on ivory white:
Play with fire.
"One of the first things that I cooked in a fire was a leek," Joshua recounts. "I gently turned it in the ash, and it got carmelized on the outside. I sliced it and put it on a plate with amazing olive oil, local sea salt from Monterey, and Meyer lemon juice. (Meyer lemons have an intoxicating aroma and sweet taste, almost like a blend of lemon and orange.) I ate it and thought, This is out of control. The way fire pulls depth of flavor out is magical."
Joshua, who's tried everything from fruit woods to fig woods, now uses almond wood from a farm in Northern California as his fuel of choice. He starts his fires with an Iwatani Torch Burner, and the flames are tended all day in the large brick oven outside of the Saison dining room. Much like the Olympic torch, it almost never goes out.
The Iwatani works beautifully, but let's look at how they do things in the world capital of grilling.
THE GAUCHO METHOD I don't have a long history of wielding fire, but I am a seasoned consumer of parrallada, as grilled meat is known in Argentina. I've witness many all-day Sunday feasts—asados—in the provinces outside of Buenos Aires. These asados are a cultural mainstay and serious business. Roasting a whole lamb, as common in Patagonia as a stuffed turkey in the U.S., often starts at 6 a.m. and finishes near 2 p.m. Argies assume 4lbs (2kg) of meat will be eaten per person at such affairs. Bring your Pepto-Bismol.
Francis Mallmann is the Argentine figurehead of grilling, the capo, the Mickey Mantle of meat.
Raised in the Andes as the son of a preeminent nuclear physicist, Mallmann trained at the most famous French kitchens in the world, later becoming South America's most venerated Patagonian cook. But, in his own words, he was "tired of making fancy French food for wealthy customers in Buenos Aires" and so returned to his mother tongue: fire.
Patagonia is, as he describes it, still much like the Wild West was 100 years ago. Andean gauchos (cowboys) and the Indians before them used methods that he still recommends. For wood, he prefers, in descending order:
1. Oak 2. Maple 3. Birch or hickory
If you have to use charcoal instead of wood, use half the volume. For a serious, large-mammal meal, a minimum of 5lb (2.5kg) of charcoal is needed.
All this in mind, Francis does the following:
LIGHTING A FIRE NEAR CIVILIZATION 00: Start with a crunched-up piece of newspaper or by making a small pile of wood chips.
01: Place a handful of small twigs over your newspaper or wood chips to create a cone.
02: Create a second layer around your cone using slightly larger wood pieces, such as kindling.
03: Gently place a few rolled sheets of newspaper through the gaps at the bottom of your cone; five should be sufficient.
04: Arrange a final layer around your cone using quartered logs no larger than 6" (15cm) thick and 1 1/2ft (0.5m) long.
05: Ignite the rolls of newspaper and let your fire steadily build until the quartered logs are burning efficiently.
06: Once your fire is burning well, add larger sections of logs or even whole logs up to 1 1/2ft (0.5m) long and 10" (25cm) in diameter.
To gauge the heat, hold your hand just above where the food will be placed. How long can you keep it there? To confuse people, you can count as they might in Argentina: "uno matador, dos matador, tres matador, quatro matador" and so on, just as Yanks say "one Mississippi, two Mississippi...."
A GENERAL GUIDE Two seconds: High heat Three-four seconds: Medium-high heat Five-six seconds: Medium heat Seven-eight seconds: Low heat
Seem complicated? Use Steve Rinella's rule of thumb: once you can hold your hand there for roughly three seconds, but no more, you're ready to start cooking.
Kingo (pronounced "KING-go") was a one-year-old Labradoodle with black-and-white patterning, including little while boots. He looked like a tiny cow.
He was frenetically jumping in front of me, begging for attention, so I put down my rum and Coke to play-fight. Steve Rinella was seated next to me on the couch, watching the Sportsman Channel and explaining how the Fu Manchu is the mullet of the 2010s. I gave Kingo another paw swipe, which led to wrestling, as it always does. Then I suddenly found myself giving the little 23-lb creature a deep-tissue massage. Mmm ... nice backstraps, I thought (this is another name for the loin of the deer, which runs over and along the spine, above the tenderloin). Moving on, I noted that the flank wouldn't yield much, and that's when I creeped myself out. I turned to Steve: "Is it normal to start seeing backstraps in everything?"
"Oh, yeah. The same thing happens to me when I'm giving my wife a backrub."
Once you start butchering in any capacity, your selective attention will be weird for a while. I'd broken down my first deer that afternoon, and now all I saw was cuts—shank, flank, and so on—in everything that moved.
Chronologically, killing comes before butchering, but psychologically, butching is better to learn first. It's a skill you can practice far more frequently.
With experience, butchering a chicken becomes an intuitive process. The bird's own anatomy guides you through the snaps and slices that reduce it to the familiar components. You need only your hands and a few low-finesse cuts with a chef's knife (a thin boning knife is helpful, but not necessary).
Here's how chef Marco Canora learned to carve his chickens into thighs, legs, wings, and breasts:
00: STRETCH SKIN Marco ensures good skin coverage by pulling on the legs and pinching the breast to spread the skin downward (see pic 1A). Later, if roasting the breast skin-side down, you'll be glad there is a good spread of skin to prevent the breasts from drying out.
01: BREAK BACK Make slanted side cuts into the skin between thigh and breast on either side with a boning knife (see pic 1B), then use a chef's knife to cut down the center toward the spine at an angle until you hit the spine (see pic 1C). Finish the job by holding the breast and the thighs in either hand and then bending the chicken open so its back snaps at a vertebra (see pic 1E). You now have two pieces of chicken: 2/3 with two thighs and two legs; 1/3 with double breast and two wings.
02: REMOVE THIGHS FROM BACK Position the lower half of the bird with the thighs spread open and the legs toward you. Ride your boning knife into the crease at the hip and slice partway along and toward the backbone, trying to keep as much meat as possible (see pic 1F). Set aside the knife and use your hands to pop the hip toward you and expose the ball-and-socket joint. Slice the thigh away from the back completely, using the middle of the joint to guide you. Repeat on the other thigh.
03: SEPARATE DRUMSTICKS FROM THIGHS Find the knee—the joint between the thigh and drumstick (leg). You can detect this seam by running your finger along the joint and feeling the slight gap in the bone. Use the boning knife to separate each drumstick and thigh at the sem; there should be little resistance as you slide (see pics 1G and 1H).
04: CHOP OFF KNUCKLES AND WING TIPS Marco suggests removing the nubby ends of the legs; as the drumsticks cook, the exposed bone enhances flavor. Position the heel of the chef's knife just above the knuckle and strike the spine of the blade with the palm of your hand (see pic 2A). Repeat. Similarly, Marco recommends slicing off the mostly meatless wing tips, which are better as stock. Slice off each wing tip at the wrist joint (see pic 2B).
05: CUT OFF WINGS As with the knee, feel out the sliceable joint between the breast and wing of the bird (the elbow). Slice through the joint and repeat on the other side (see pic 2C).
06: SEPARATE DOUBLE BREAST FROM BACK It's time to remove the rest of the backbone. Things get more difficult here. Position the double breast so that the neck is pointing away from you, chest side up. Fully insert the chef's knife into the chest cavity and point it directly into the cutting board with the bird draped over the knife's spine. You'll be making two diagonal, internal cuts to the left and the right of the spine—Marco calls it "a leverage-snap-through-the-bone kind of scenario." Using your off hand to hold the chicken and knife point against the cutting board (you can use a kitchen towel for safety), crunch downward through the middle of the ribs on one side of the rib cage (see pic 2D). With the knife's point still in contact with the cutting board, repeat the same crunching, downward cut on the other side of the rib cage. (If the crunch doesn't cut through the ribs, drag back with a few hard slices afterward.)
07: DISLODGE THE KEEL BONE While you could split the breastbone in half at this point, you'd be skipping Marco's favorite step: pulling out the semisoft breastbone, or keel bone. Removing the keel bone makes it easier to serve the cooked breasts later. Turn the double breast around so that the wing nubs are nearest to you. Place the heel of your knife along one side of the keel bone and give the knife's spine a little point—light enough to cut only the semisoft edge of the keel bone, not the breast itself (see pic 2E). Make the same light cut on the other side of the keel bone. Splay the double breast open, pop the keel bone up (see pic 2F), then gradually run your thumbs under the ridge of the keel bone toward the tapered front, separating the keel bone from the breast until it can be pulled out completely (see pic 2G). Slide the double breast into two with a chef's knife by cutting through the recessed area where the keel bone was (see pic 2H).
NOTE: Directly under either side of the keel bone are the two tenderloins. In some cases, if the keel bone is removed with special care, the two tenderloins will be beautifully encased in a silver skin that keeps them attached to the breast for cooking.
When journalist David Walsh, the chief sports writer for the
Sunday Times and the author of From Lance to Landis and LA Confidential, needed
a title for his new book about the 13 years he’s spent trying to expose
Lance Armstrong’s doping, he took to Twitter. “Thinking about title
for this last book on LA, have not come up with anything. So okay it's over to
you - 1 or 2-word title, 3 or 4 max,” he said.
Responses came streaming in. Some were
good. Some made little sense at all. Walsh kept a running tab of his
favorites and responded to them. Here’s a short list, including the tweet announcing the winner, Seven Deadly Sins.
Most river epics take place far away on remote stretches of whitewater, but Idaho guides Jon Barker and Clancy Reece found adventure, and disaster, closer to home. The pair’s exploits running the Salmon River are the subject of the fast-moving Anything Worth Doing ($15, Sundog) by Jo Deurbrouck, another longtime Salmon guide.
The book follows Barker and his late mentor, Reece, on two voyages over the span of 10 years. The first of these is a grueling, 1988 Huck Finn-like trip from the Salmon’s source, high in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, down 900 mostly windy river miles to the mouth of the Columbia. Based on Reece’s journals and Barker’s recollection, it’s a boat-level snapshot of America’s most-dammed waterway two decades before documenting entire river systems came into favor. (Barker was also the first to run the Colorado from source to sea the following year.)
The second trip is a fool’s errand that costs Reece his life. In June 1996, the Salmon crested at nearly 100,000cfs. The two men and a third volunteer set off down the upper Salmon at dusk with it in their heads that they’d break the world record for most river miles traveled in a 24-hour period. That spring, I was 17 and working with Deurbrouck as a swamper, setting camps, washing dishes, and spending my free hours learning to kayak on the same stretch of river. (The previous summer, it had been Deurbrouck who taught me to roll up in an old Perception Dancer; we’ve stayed in touch on and off.)
The accident rocked the small rafting town of Riggins, and Doubrouck retells it with a deep understanding of the way rivers and boats interact. Rowing through the dark, she writes, Reece and Barker “sought the center bead of the current by instinct, and stayed in it by seeking even pressure against each oar blade and that steady, predictable rocking of the boat that only occurs on unconflicted water.” Surprisingly, it wasn't the dark, the old-growth driftwood, or even the swollen rapids that drowned Reece but the beginner's mistake of not dressing for the cold.
The account of Reece’s demise is truly terrifying, but Anything Worth Doing is ultimately a profile of one of Idaho’s last iconoclast boatmen. (The term “raft guide” is treated as a slur among the oldtimers.) Reece comes across as bearish and self-reliant, like a landlocked Thor Heyerdahl or a less militant George Heyduke. He’s “proud but perilously close to extraneous, full of esoteric knowledge the broader world found colorful more than useful.” And like so many of his ilk, he wasn’t a guy who bent to advice after he’d made up his mind.