It was a typical day on the barbecue trail: a bone-jarring drive halfway across northern Italy -- a small price to pay for what was reputed to be one of the best purveyors of bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak). I was looking forward to real chianina beef (from a slow-maturing breed of Italian cattle prized for its dark, rich-tasting meat) cut four-fingers thick by a grill master named Angelo Leocastre. We arrived at the destination -- a converted 17th century hunting lodge—at dusk, but a tour of the property revealed neither grill nor wood smoke. My despair grew until 9 p.m., when Leocastre summoned us not to a grill, but the fireplace.
As the nights turn cool and darkness comes early, many people retire their grills for the winter, but this is precisely the sort of weather an Italian cherishes for grilling. In northern Italy, grilling is often done indoors over an oak fire in the fireplace. Indeed, in Friuli, in northeastern Italy, there's even a special indoor-raised hearth (picture a stone fireplace on legs) called a focolare.
The fireplace is the oldest indoor grill. The ancient Romans called it a focus (hearth), and its central role in cooking, domestic well-being, and promoting general human happiness made it the literal and spiritual focal point of the home. (Remember that the next time your spouse tells you to focus.)
The invention of cook stoves in the 19th century and central heating in the 20th century effectively made the fireplace an aesthetic relic in the U.S. (Think of it -- for most of human history, people depending on the hearth for cooking.) In many parts of the world -- some examples include Argentina, Italy, France, and India -- cooking on an indoor hearth remains a living art.
There are many benefits of grilling in a fireplace:
- It is the indoor grilling method most like grilling outdoors on a wood- or charcoal-burning grill.
- You can cook over a wide temperature range, from 160 degrees for slow roasting to over 750 degrees for high heat grilling.
- The food is cooked over wood, giving it incomparable flavor (not to mention a leg up even on your charcoal or gas grill).
- It enables you to prepare terrific hot meals in awful weather or even during power outages.
- Best of all, it gives you the feeling of camaraderie and well-being that comes with gathering with members of your tribe in front of a fire.
Here are a few of your cooking options:
- "Caveman style" is the term I use for foods that can be cooked directly on or in the embers. These include whole onions, eggplant, bell peppers, yams, potatoes, beets, and even thick steaks like Porterhouse, T-bone, ribeye, etc.
- Arrange two parallel rows of two or more courses of firebrick broad sides down toward the front of the fireplace or on the fireplace "apron". Shovel or hoe a layer of embers between the two rows, then rest a frying pan, griddle, Dutch oven, or even a soaked cedar plank on the bricks. Yes, the wood smoke will curl over the edge of the pan, infusing the food with smoke flavor.
- Skewer sausages on metal skewers (preferably with heat-resistant handles) or long green sticks whittled to a point. Don't forget s'mores!
- A "poor man's rotisserie" is still used in southern France. The method is called à la ficelle ("on a string"). Meat or poultry is trussed into a compact package and suspended from a hook in the ceiling or on the mantelpiece by a long piece of sturdy kitchen twine. Like a yo-yo at its perigee, the meat rotates near the radiant heat of the fire. (Attach playing cards to the string to catch drafts.) This method is employed at the fireplace-dependent Oakland, California, restaurant Camino where leg of lamb roasts, its fat and juices dripping onto white beans.
- Florentine Porterhouse
- Caveman T-Bones
- Ember-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Maple-Cinnamon Butter
- Catalan Tomato Bread
- Onions in the Fireplace
- Uptown S'mores
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