Todd Fisher Dishing it Out!
Posted: 01/25/2012 02:25:06 AM PST
Updated: 01/25/2012 08:49:27 AM PST
I don’t know if it was a bolt of lightning, charbroiling a goat in the middle of a field or a clever caveman who was tired of the same old sashimi platter that put fire to the foods we eat, but I must say bravo!
I mean think about sitting around the old campfire next week, gearing up to watch the annual T-rex bowl, gnawing on some buffalo-style pterodactyl wings that were a little on the, well, freshly killed and raw side. Don’t you think they would be so much better with a touch of flame-broiled culinary mastery applied to the recipe?
Three Uhgs for whoever pulled that one out of their animal skin cap. For centuries, or at least as long as I can remember, food has been cooked. Of course, not all food, but let us not stray from the course we have set out upon. Cooking, we know, began with the understanding of man’s red fire. The open flame licking at and charring your brontosaurus chop was the original secret recipe. There was no other means by which to cook food. The understanding of trapping and containing heat to create an oven did not come along till much later, just like in this column, and we will get to that shortly.
Initially, animal carcasses were simply charred, either laid directly into the fire or affixed to a tree branch that was supported on each end and hung above the flames and turned occasionally to essentially rotisserie cook the beast. The first grill masters used green tree saplings stretched over circles of rocks to create grates or grills that would suspend food over the hot coals and would take a long time to burn, yet allow the foods to cook along the way.
Undoubtedly it was these green saplings that gave way to wrapping foods in plant leaves to defer direct heat and create steam that would cook the meats faster as well as add flavor and moisture to the cooked meat. It was this technique that led to the first oven or pit. Large pits were dug and filled with rocks and a fire was built atop the stones, once the coals burnt down and fell below the rocks, creating a bed of coals and embers, the plant-wrapped meats were laid onto the rocks and covered with earth and more rocks to trap the heat within the pit.
This method is still used to date, reserved by most cultures for special occasions and large gatherings. The advancement of trapped heat eventually lead to what we now know as our ovens. Still, the first ovens were heated by wood and, dating back as far as 29,000 BC, it was used as a roasting and boiling pit and to cook mammoth! Hmmm.
There have been advances with brick and clay construction, as well as the use of natural gas as fuel. But the wood-fired oven is a heritage that has long been passed down from generation to generation. Whether called a forno, horno, hibachi, churrasco, kamado, tandoor or kettle, wood-fired ovens and grills have become widely popular again. It is no mistake that restaurants across the country are highlighting their wood-burning ovens as a signature of their establishments. It is a style of cooking that resonates with the diner in a very rustic and primitive way, yet offers tremendous diversity and unique characteristics.
Artisan style pizzas for example, where the crust is thin and crisp with the random blisters of charred deliciousness generated from the intensity of the hot wood burning just inches away, precisely dressed with slices of potato, sheep’s milk cheese and Merquez sausage accented with a drizzle of Meyer lemon oil. A petite cocotte (classic French individual size roasting pan) bubbling up with fork tender parsnips and caramelized shallots, smothered with a pungent combination of Gruyere cheese, bread crumbs and cracked pepper for a masterful gratin, slowly cooking along side a perfectly crafted, crispy skinned, succulent pheasant roulade, set away from the intense fire to breathe in the heat and smoke of the oven.
Wood fired cooking is unique unto each oven and each chef. It is the chef who creates stimulating and inspired creations, who must perfectly execute the technique, but it is the oven that exquisitely cooks and accentuates the chosen ingredients. I believe there is no greater style of cooking that so wonderfully combines the heritage of food with the present day palate of the experiential diner. Whether you have a wood-burning oven at home or a kettle grill, cooking with wood can make the ordinary, extraordinary.
Need a little advice on how to do it? Got a question or two? Send me an email. Any opportunity to share my passion is a good day! Till next time, Salud!
Celebrity chef Todd Fisher is a Herald columnist, chef de cuisine at Stick’s at the Inn at Spanish Bay and a brand consultant. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.