I'm amazed when I walk into a bookstore, check out the cookbook section, and see shelves full of books on barbecuing, grilling, and live fire cooking. I am not only amazed by the sheer volume of books on this subject, but also, when I start to really think about it, amazed that we need so many such books to teach us the art of live fire cooking. When I say teach, I guess I really mean, re-teach us.
Live fire cooking has sustained the human race for 99.9% of its existence, here on Earth, and continues to sustain a good portion of the population. In just over 100 years, however, our modern society has all but forgotten the basic cooking techniques that helped us survive for thousands of years. Many of us are now just rediscovering this lost skill and art, in part, thanks to the few who have strived to keep such traditions alive.
Live fire cooking can be both primal---think big slabs of ribs, juicy steaks or whole hog roasts---or it can subtle and almost elegant---as in breads baked in wood fired ovens, delicately spiced kebobs, or dishes slowly braised over the dying embers of a fireplace. A large majority of the cookbooks dealing with live fire cooking tend towards the more primal examples of cooking with fire. These books tend to focus on grills and barbecue pits but often ignore other aspects of live fire cooking such as wood burning grills, fireplaces and even campfires. Luckily, Mary Karlin came along and wrote Wood-Fired Cooking to help fill the void left by so many other authors.
Owners of wood burning ovens and fireplaces should jump for joy. Finally, there is a cookbook out there that focuses on you. While Ms. Karlin does include chapters on grilling and barbecuing, it's hard not to notice her bias towards backyard ovens. In fact her love for wood burning ovens seems to invade most parts of the book. While I might normally find this strong bias distracting in a book that claims to want to cover so many topics, in this case, where so few books have been written with backyard oven bakers in mind, I find it refreshing that she covers new ground so thoroughly. She also offers up plenty of advice, for those people who own "Big Green Eggs," so that they can use them to their full potential. That's not to say that she ignores those of us who don't own anything other than standard Weber type kettle grills. She even gives good advice on how to, inexpensively, make them more efficient, with fire bricks, so that they can be used to slowly roast and braise tougher cuts of meat.
In fact, I do not own a wood-fired oven or cooker. When testing recipes for this review they were all prepared on a Weber kettle grill set up for indirect cooking. I also added a few soaked wood chips to provide more of a smoky flavor since I wasn't using whole wood.
While this didn't necessarily produce the ideal environment for cooking these dishes, they still came out quite well---further testimony to Ms Karlin's knowledge about how live-fire cookery really works.
Ms Karlin has done her research and offers numerous charts to help guide the reader through the countless variables of live fire cooking. My favorite chart is the one where she examines various types of hardwoods and fruitwoods, describing their basic flavor profile, traditional uses, and the general heat level they produce. In another chart she breaks down different wood-fired environments, the type of heat they create (high, low, direct, indirect), and generic examples of these devices. She then goes on to give descriptions of these devices and a few examples of brands that the reader might be familiar with. Later, she goes into more detail about these appliances, offering up a page or two of more in depth information. Being concerned about the environment, she also talks about ways to use these devices more efficiently, using them to cook entire meals, or in the case of wood burning ovens, that can require hours to bring them up to temperature, using them to cook meals for an entire week, with one firing.
But let's face it, this is all fluff. It's good information, but it is secondary. The reason most people buy cookbooks is for the recipes. Don't worry. Wood-Fired Cooking delivers on this account also. From "Moroccan Flatbread Stuffed with Onion, Parsley, and Cumin," to "Baked Risotto with Asparagus and Swiss Chard," to "Warm Apple and Sweet Potato Upside-Down Cake with Caramel Sauce," these recipes are not the run-of-the-mill fare offered up by so many other cookbooks. I'll admit, this might not be the first cookbook I turn to if I am just cooking out for a 4th of July barbecue But when I am looking to create a little nicer dining experience for my friends, but still want to cook outside and fire up the grill, you had better believe that this will be the first book I open.
Ms Karlin has most definitely found a niche that needed filling. Overall, I find this book to be a very worthy addition to the ever growing number of live fire cookbooks gracing the bookstore shelves. True, if you are just looking for help honing your basic grilling and barbecuing skills this might not be the book for you. But if you are looking for a book to help you impress your foodie friends then look no further. This is the one for you.
Recipe: Provencal Chicken