Oct 7, 2010

cooking with fire and clay

L-R top row: garden furniture, unidentifiable magazine, pot with stew, bolivian peasant wood stove, firewood, pot with beans, max's surfboard.
L-R bottom row: some rocks, bricks.

michael pollan is such hot shit, cooking mindblowingly delicious multicourse collabo meals over the span of more than a day with nothing more than an enormous wood-fired oven, a bevy of experienced baker-folk and chef-types*, apparently vast quantities of local seasonal produce and carefully raised meats, specialty equipment (including a real, live salamander, shown here to great advantage hovering above apricot and saffron gratin), and untrammeled access to a palatial country estate in napa, calif.

while pollan and his gang did that last weekend—and in fact completely unaware at the time that we were recreating his experience in microcosm—a few of us were doing something quite similar but on a scale befitting our stations in life.

caitlin's fieldwork brings her often to bolivia from whence she has, over the course of several visits, amassed a sizeable collection of clay pots and other cooking apparatus in which she now does most of her cooking. she returned from her latest excursion with a bolivian wood stove which is elegant in its absolute simplicity. this object, which you see in the photograph above, inspired chris and caitlin to convene us for a saturday afternoon exercise in atavism: to return to the humans that we all were in the dark backward and abysm of time by cooking a meal with fire and clay. i pointed out to chris that since we usually do most of our cooking over fire it wouldn't truly be atavistic without the clay.

our interdependent cooking configuration:
  1. clay pots, wood stove, and mad cooking skillz from caitlin; 
  2. more mad cooking skillz, lamb shoulder, plus general aura of cool from max (who makes music, works for the food project, and surfs);
  3. bricks, firewood, and knowing commentary from chris; 
  4. big talk and giant scarlet runner beans from mexico by way of steve sando (by way of me).
to reduce to almost zero the risk of a runaway conflagration, chris and caitlin constructed a platform of bricks upon which the stove would sit. we were momentarily nonplussed by the firewood (clearly too long to fit completely in the stove) but decided to go for it anyway since we didn't have a saw to cut things up. max and chris started the fire with damp leaves from under the tree in the back yard while i scraped at a piece of firewood with a kitchen knife in an unsuccessful attempt to generate the tinder that we didn't have.

an open question: the stove was painted bright red to start and then turned black right after the fire got lit. will chris and max die tragically young, their promise unfulfilled because of toxic fumes inhaled while lighting a fire in a bolivian wood stove? only time will tell. but before describing what went down in each of the pots, let's backtrack an hour or so before the lighting of the fire, to when we cheated slightly by using the gas stove to boil gallons of water, brown many pieces of lamb in a cast iron skillet, fry up onions for the beans, and set off the smoke detectors for the entire building. to caitlin's landlady and her numerous neighbours, we say "sorry!"

in the big pot: a lamb stew traditional (read: unbelievably labour-intensive) bolivian style. the lamb was large chunks of shoulder from animals raised by max's dad, which max first browned slowly in a large cast iron skillet. i only infrequently have the patience to brown meat thoroughly, so it was a pleasure to watch someone else do it right and apparently effortlessly. after we shut off all the smoke detectors, the browned pieces of meat went into the clay pot with their deglazed pan juices and enough water to cover, and we set them to boil hard on the wood stove. meanwhile caitlin put on her special cooking hat and started to make the chili paste. this incredibly laborious process begins with toasting a large quantity of aji amarillos in a dry skillet, then simmering them with some water, then seeding them and blending them with some onions, garlic, and parsley stems. midway, ask your toiling lascars to dice some yellow onion finely and brown those in oil before adding them to the blender. the result is a brightish yellow paste with a hint of smoke, which you fry in oil until it darkens considerably. she stirred many large spoonfuls of this paste into the stew for the final 90 minutes of cooking, during which we micro-managed the fire so that the stew stayed at a gentle simmer. the stew took 3 hours on the fire, by the end of which time all the collagen had fully hydrolysed, leaving the lamb spoon-tender. 

in the small pot: rancho gordo scarlet runner beans cooked with onions, cayenne, cumin, and a bay leaf for 4 hours on a gentle simmer with water to cover. a load of finely chopped garlic went in for the last 30 minutes, followed by bunch of bitter, sugarless bolivian chocolate. cooking these beans is a walk in the park by any standard, but especially so when compared to a traditional bolivian lamb stew (see above). i futzed with them too much, but you cannot screw beans up.
   
some observations about clay (old hat for caitlin who cooks in nothing but clay): 
  1. once properly seasoned and cured, you cook with clay pots just like you would with metal ones. 
  2. conductivity in clay is much lower than in metal, so a variable heat source is much less problematic than you think. clay and wood are built for each other. 
  3. food cooked in clay tastes earthy, in a good way. earthy food is both not new and also quite new.
  4. no clue about comparative heat capacity and thermal mass.
  5. heat control on this little stove thing (accomplished by pushing in or pulling out flaming pieces of wood) is surprisingly good.
having started cooking just after noon, we got down to eating at 5pm. beans with a dusting of chopped cilantro and onion, and lamb stew with a squeeze of lime and a salad-y garnish of halved cherry tomatoes, chopped parsley, and olive oil. i normally use a single aji amarillo as a flavour note in a large pot of beans or rice, so the large quantity of chili paste in the stew came as a surprise. the toasting and slow cooking made the chili mildly smokey and much sweeter than i usually experience it. good eats are often about an interplay of textures and temperatures: lamb shoulder soft enough to fall apart at the touch of a spoon but not mushy, a rich and distinct aroma of lamb, smoke, and sweet chilies, the herby crunch of parsley and cilantro, sugar and acid from the limes and tomatoes, beans with a texture almost meatier than the lamb and with some bite from the chocolate. a killer lunch.

here's how we stacked up against team pollan:
  1. they took 36 hours to cook their meal; we took 5. 
  2. they were in napa, calif.; we were in somerville, mass.
  3. they used a custom-built wood-fired oven; we used a bolivian peasant woodstove.
  4. they made a massively multicourse meal featuring many brightly coloured food items; we made beans and a lamb stew, both of which were brown with brown highlights, though the garnishes did feature green and red bits.
  5. they cooked meat raised with care; we cooked meat raised with care by someone we know.
  6. "never once [did they have] to run out to the store for a missing ingredient"; we did two separate runs for garlic, dried aji amarillos, onions, tea, sugar, limes, and a taco for max. 
reflecting on the meal beyond the food is now mandatory in any writing about food but i usually find it deeply tiresome. fortunately, one of michael pollan's numerous gifts is the ability to reflect incessantly on the meal beyond the food without ever seeming to weary of the task. i leave you with his conclusion from his 36-hour wood-fired goat-cooking odyssey, which conveniently is applicable also to our humble experiment on this other, colder coast:
I realize I’ve gotten at least as much pleasure from working together to create these meals as I have from eating them. Sometimes producing things is more gratifying—and more conducive to building community—than consuming them, I decide. ... there’s something special about the camaraderie of the kitchen crew.

* including chad robertson, who is half of the team behind tartine, a bakery in san francisco i lived regrettably close to. their croissants have a special place in my heart and on the walls of my arteries.

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