Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cooking old-school with fire can teach much about modern foodways

Food historian Paula Marcoux will talk about how paying attention to historic cooking can improve contemporary home cooking at 7pm Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is the season opening meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC). Admission is free and Marcoux will sign copies of her book, Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking. 

After a long humid summer, we all crave fall. Leaves already are beginning to change color and loosen. 

Pine straw soon will follow. So when those needles carpet your yard, do what Paula Marcoux does: Set them on fire.

“Some people are wary of digging a fire pit or cooking in the fireplace, but everyone seems to get the idea of cooking mussels with pine straw," says Marcoux, a food historian who shares her passion for primal cooking methods in her book,Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes that Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking (Storey Publishing).

Pine-Needle Mussels from Paula Marcoux's website.
Marcoux made the dramatic meal for an episode of the aptly named Man Food Fire on the Cooking Channel. She's also made it several times during her book tour and recommends it as an easy way for newbies to try cooking with live fire.

Many people embrace it because there are no tools needed," says Marcoux, whose book includes step-by-step photos how to arrange the mussels and pine straw. "A lot of people say they want to jump right in and build an oven. I try to back them off from that and try less expensive or labor intensive methods. People with fireplaces have huge opportunities to try a lot of the recipes without making big changes or an investment."

Marcoux just led an extraordinary fireplace cooking presentation at Monticello, the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a lover of fine food and wine who is credited for introducing many European delicacies and cooking methods to colonial America. The original kitchen fireplace remains at the historic site but is not often used.

"One of the barriers is that no one wants to be the one to burn it down," she jokes. "But it's a really safe arrangement. With ordinary precautions, they can have a very vibrant exhibit there. I'm happy to know that I was a small part in possibly opening this up in the future."

Marcoux worked on the menu with Dr. Leni Sorensen, a fellow scholar who is cooking her way through The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph. First published in 1838, it is generally recognized as the first truly American cookbook. She followed its directions to prepare a sumptuous meal of roast leg of lamb, okra and tomatoes, sweet potatoes on a griddle and burnt cream, the latter being an Americanized crème brulee.

"It was an amazing, awe-inspiring honor to cook in the actual Monticello kitchen," she says. "It's a very simple hearth, and they also have a stew stove with air blowing up beneath it. It's a much more precise way of cooking and keeping temperature under control. I made a butter sauce on it, something you have to pay attention to."

While Marcoux cooks with an eye on history, Cooking With Fire is written for the modern cook who wants to broaden their understanding of cooking over an open fire. 

"It's surprised me how many people who have told me that they built a fire pit in their yard – and that they view it as a really nice feature," Marcoux says. "I think there is renewed interest because many chefs and bakers are going back to cooking with wood fuel. The flavor can't be matched any other way."

Marcoux is strongly opposed to cooking with a gas grill. "Using them always reminds me how much I hate them," she says. "Even the expensive ones just don't get hot enough. And if you use the lid, it steams instead of grills. The crappiest little hibachi and coal is better." 

If you don't have a hibachi and aren't keen on mussels, Marcoux suggests banking dry wood in an old kettle-style grill to get a taste of the live-fire cooking experience.

"They're not made for such high heat, so it will burn out" she warns. "But if you keep watch, people are always throwing away parts of old grills. I have quite a few, myself. I also collect heavy cast iron pans from people who say they are too heavy to use. If you don't cook directly on a grate, there's nothing better than a heavy cast iron pan."

And there's always your fireplace – or a friend's fireplace, if your home does not have one. "No one thinks to cook in their fireplace, but it won't destroy it to grill a steak or roast a chicken," she says. "You can learn quite a bit by cooking the way they did hundreds of years ago."

Pine-Needle Mussels
Excerpted from “Cooking with Fire” by Paula Marcoux, photography by Keller + Keller, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

In October, the pitch pines and white pines around our house drop a beautiful puffy mat of russet needles. It takes but a few minutes to gather up the pile needed to have this kind of fun. This is an irresistible introduction for newbies of any age to both cooking with fire and eating shellfish.

About 4 or 5 pounds of fresh mussels in the shell

6 to 10 servings, as an appetizer

1. Gather 1/2 to 1 bushel nice dry pine needles.

2. We like to set this up directly on an outdoor wooden table, but you can use a large board (say 3 by 3 feet) or a very flat large stone. Be aware that you will leave a pretty good scorching on whatever surface you select. Also look around before you start to make sure that you will not inadvertently set something else on fire; have a bucket of water handy just in case.

3. Place something small and stable in the middle of the board; a quarter of a brick, a small oblong stone, a half of a potato, cut side down, a small cube of stale bread . . . Arrange the mussels around it, leaning against the supporting object, with their pointy ends sticking upward. Continue arranging all the mussels in a concentric manner. Many hands make quick work and add to the fun.

4. Now let everyone scatter the pine needles evenly, and as deeply as possible, over the top of the mussels. Give a brief safety lecture, then take a single coal from whatever fire you have burning nearby and deposit it deep in the mountain of pine needles, directly on top of the little support in the middle. (If for some reason you don’t have a fire already burning somewhere, just use a match.) Stand back; these babies really go up.

5. That’s it. When the fire dies down, within the smoking ruins lies a tasty appetizer. Resiny-smoky, briny, delicious. I once tried offering toast and remoulade sauce as accompaniments, but was soundly rebuffed with cries of “they’re too good alone!”

6. If for some reason there’s a cool spot in the fire and some of the mussels don’t open, gather them up and rearrange them with new pine needles for a quick encore pyre.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting method! Usually the simple food prep yields the tastiest results, especially when you use quality ingredients.