Ways to bring thrill of the grill back
BY JENNIFER OLVERA July 17, 2012 11:07AM
Chef Rick Gresh of David Burke's Primehouse puts tuna steaks atop blocks of Himalayan salt as a different technique for grilling food on Thursday, June 28, 2012 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
ON THE COVER
Updated: August 23, 2012 9:59AM
Dancing flames. A smoky scent that hangs in the air. Juicy, flame-licked meat. Fire sure is magnetic.
As for cooking over one, it’s a primal experience. Granted, snappy wieners and straight-up steak will suffice, but there’s plenty more to explore.
Whether you switch things up by varying wood or use innovative techniques to cook tried and true ingredients, cooking over an open flame “brings humans back to their roots,” says Paul Virant, executive chef of Perennial Virant and exec chef/owner of Vie in Western Springs.
Fernando Navas, corporate chef of SUSHISAMBA rio agrees.
“Having been born and raised in Argentina, I love cooking outside,” he says. “Our version of ‘campfire cooking’ — cordero al asado — involves butterflying baby lamb and cooking it over an open fire. Asados are special, culinary centered experiences that unite friends and family.”
And while the communal aspect of open fire cooking certainly is a draw, so is the flavor.
“Whatever I cook over a fire tastes 10 times better then the same dish cooked inside on the stove,” contends Joe Parajecki, chef and head butcher at Standard Market in Westmont.
He should know: Parajecki helped develop campfire recipes for Cub Scout troops. Among them are dishes prepped in a cardboard box oven, eggs fried in a paper bag and individual cakes, cooked in hollowed-out oranges. He fashions spicy hot nuts, too.
Basically, the possibilities are endless.
“You can cook on a stick, using a cooking grate set over the fire, in foil placed directly in embers and by using a Dutch oven,” Parajecki says.
Meanwhile, Matthias Merges, executive chef/owner of Yusho, likes to cook right in the heart of the heat.
“I bake onions with lavender wrapped in foil,” he says. “I also bury eggplant under the coals right before the fire goes out for the night.”
In the morning, ash-baked eggplant awaits.
“I use that eggplant to make a spread, or I serve it as a side with eggs and bacon,” Merges says.
“There is a certain romance to building a fire, watching it burn and having your food cooked this way,” says Rick Gresh, executive chef/partner of David Burke’s Primehouse. “It’s a slow down, relax and enjoy your company way of cooking.”
Admittedly, open-fire cooking isn’t always the easiest way to indulge — especially since flare-ups can occur. What’s more, it takes time, some fussing and a level of precision.
“You need to control the heat,” cautions Virant. “That’s why I stoke the fire every 15 minutes or so and add a log,” he says.
Virant’s The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-Doux features a recipe for skirt steak with pickled fennel-dressed panzanella. Consider it built for this sort of thing.
“A sense of accomplishment comes from feeding family and friends this way,” says Gresh. “You feel kind of caveman.”
True, but it’s unlikely cavemen cooked on Himalayan salt blocks, like Gresh. A breeze to use, you simply “season” them in a 400 degree oven for an hour to 90 minutes before use.
“Once a salt block is seasoned, thoroughly preheat it for use in the oven, on the grill or over open fire,” instructs Gresh, who cooks everything from pancakes to steak, seafood, vegetables, pizza and cookies on top.
“You get a more delicate, evenly salty flavor than when you sprinkle salt on food,” he says.
If that’s not your style, try switching up the firewood you use. It makes a big difference, too.
“Cherry, apple, pear and maple offer a lighter flavor than hickory or mesquite,” says Jeffrey Hedin, executive chef/owner of Leopold.
If you’re adding chips to an already roaring fire, soak them in water for an hour. Then, throw them on the fire.
Gresh also dries spent citrus in a low oven for four to five hours until it’s “pure black,” like charcoal. Then, he throws it on a fire intended for cooking.
“It lends a great citrus flavor to vegetables and proteins, like pork, poultry and seafood,” he says.
Of course, Parajecki likes to treat his campfire like a stove.
“I set my Dutch oven over a fire and cook anything from stew to chili or whole turkey for crowds of any size,” he says.
Paul Fehribach, executive chef/owner of Big Jones, does, too. As such, he brings previously braised or roasted meats to the proverbial table.
“You get both the texture of roasting and the flavor of grilling,” he says. “We make hog collars at the restaurant this way, but most any fatty cut works, including ribeye, mutton shoulder, brisket and pork shoulder.”
“Items with a lot of fat do well over open fire because as the fat drips in to create smoke that flavors the meat,” Gresh agrees.
That said, seafood cooked over flames shines as well. Fehribach, for one, favors oysters.
“We grill them with a Creole-style mignonette, Dante — a hard sheep’s cheese — and bread crumbs,” he says. “They’re quick and easy. And nothing picks up the flavor of fire quite like oysters.”
Naturally, there’s no reason to leave veggies in the cold. Gresh turns out foil packets of artichokes zapped with lemon juice, herbs and olive oil. He also finishes burnt carrot salad (see accompanying recipe) with goat cheese.
Cary Taylor, executive chef of The Southern, likes to veg, too. That’s why he grills English peas in-pod and eats them like edamame. He simply tosses them with mint and plunks them in Green Goddess dip.
Whatever you grill, remember following proper procedures is essential. After all, ingredients gain direct flavor from whatever’s fueling the flames.
“I use all wood for making a fire, and I stay away from lighter fluid, papers with ink and boxes with glue,” Merges says. “You don’t want to use something that imparts toxins or adds unwanted flavors.”
Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.