Food cooked with fire engages a primal part of the brain, and in the past few years chefs have been tapping into that primeval instinct. Two leaders of the movement have captured the attention of the culinary world, as well as the stomachs of diners, by cooking solely over wood fire. Russell Moore, head chef at Camino in Oakland, California, advocates hyper-local California cuisine, influenced by his time working at Chez Panisse. And Eric Werner, head chef at Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico, utilizes ingredients from the Yucatán to morph classic preparations into new realms of flavor. Both are united by the open flame.
New cookbooks from each chef offer different ways to approach the intuitive, yet long obfuscated, maze that cooking over fire presents. In This Is Camino, Moore gives an in-depth look into the technique of cooking over hot coals and fire. He addresses how to utilize different heat for different preparations, how to cook multiple dishes, how to train yourself to work with the fire, and how to learn how fire will cook food. Hartwood, on the other hand, is an exploration of place through new and unique ingredients. Werner takes the reader through his explorations of the Yucatán, explaining how local ingredients can be used to create vibrant dishes.
For the home chef, the ratatouille recipe from Camino can be cooked in a clean fireplace, but the “Chicken Legs Recado Rojo” recipe from Hartwood might have better results on a wood stove. Either way, they both offer a more engaging cooking experience, and the results are so good, they may even elicit the motivating to get outside and chop your own wood.
Ratatouille Cooked in the Fire
Ratatouille is a Provençal vegetable stew that is traditionally cooked in a pot on the stove. It’s delicious, but it’s even better when each vegetable is cooked separately over a fire and then mixed together. I like each vegetable to be distinct and for their juices and the fire’s smokiness to tie them together. We use untraditional spices and herbs — cumin, coriander, fenugreek, saffron, mint, basil — and we change them up all the time. I like ratatouille best as a main course with a Camino egg, polenta, and some spicy cooked greens. We sometimes serve it as side dish to grilled fish, lamb, or poultry. It’s also great as part of a composed salad the next day, cooked into an omelet, or served with rice. Because cooking ratatouille in the fire is such an ordeal, you should make enough to do all of the above. — Russell Moore
Generously Serves 6 to 8
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
Pinch of saffron threads (about 15)
4 to 6 summer squash (about 2 pounds)
4 or 5 torpedo or red onions (about 1 pound)
2 globe eggplants (about 1 3/4 pounds)
4 peppers (about 1 pound), such as gypsy, flamingo, or corno di toro
5 or 6 yellow onions (about 1 1/4 pounds)
6 large tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
Cloves from 1 1/2 heads garlic, sliced thin
2 big handfuls of herb leaves, such as Persian mint, piccolo fino basil, or parsley
1. Build a fire and while the coals are getting ready, you can start your prep work.
2. Toast the cumin, caraway, and coriander seeds in a pan until they’re a shade darker. Take the pan off the heat and add the fenugreek, tossing it around to warm it but not really toast it at all; browned fenugreek tastes bitter. Put all the spices in a grinder along with the saffron threads and pulse into a coarse powder.
3. Trim the stem ends of the summer squash and cut lengthwise into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Trim both ends of the torpedo onions, peel, and cut into 1/3-inch rings. Since eggplant skin can be tough, use a vegetable peeler to peel off 2-inch strips of skin, leaving 1/3-inch stripes of skin in between. Slice off the stem ends, then cut the eggplant into rounds that are a little bit thicker than the squash and torpedo onion slices, as they will shrink a little when you cook them. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise, pull out the seeds and ribs, and slice lengthwise again into quarters.
3. Keeping the torpedo onion slices intact, brush the onions, squash, and eggplant with olive oil on each side and season with salt and with the spice mixture. With the peppers, it’s easier to just toss them in a bowl with olive oil, salt, and spices. All these vegetables will be easier to grill once the salt has softened them a bit, so let them sit for at least 20 minutes.
4. While the other vegetables are softening, roast the yellow onions in the coals. The coals are probably not quite ready for grilling yet (still a little flamey), but they’ll be far enough along for the onions. Nestle the onions, whole and unpeeled, directly in the coals. Cook them until they’re completely black and a skewer slides through them without much resistance, about 30 minutes. Use tongs to flip them over every once in a while so they cook evenly.
5. Once the coals are ready (no more flames), you can start grilling the vegetables. If you have a big enough grill, you can grill all the vegetables at the same time, but you will need a medium-hot area for the squash, tomatoes, torpedo onions, and peppers and a slightly cooler area for the eggplant. If you have a small grill, you can cook each vegetable one at a time — brushing and wiping your grill in between each new vegetable and replenishing your coals so you maintain a medium-hot grill for most of the vegetables, cooking the eggplant last on the descending coals. The tomatoes are a little more flexible with the grill temperature, so you can tuck them in between other vegetables; I prefer them on a hotter grill because then you can get some black spots on them. In any case, when you are grilling so many vegetables, you have to stay organized and on top of it. I’m messy about a lot of things, but not this.
6. Grill the squash slices close together and at a slight angle. Let them cook for a few minutes without moving them, then check one slice to see if it has nice, dark grill marks. When it does, flip all the squash and cook the second side for another few minutes. As the vegetables are done cooking, move them all to a baking dish to cool a bit. They will start releasing juices as they cool and you want to save all this liquid for later.
7. Pull off the stems from about two-thirds of the tomatoes, but leave the cores in. Without any oil or seasoning, put the whole tomatoes right onto the grill, stem side down. Cook them until they begin to soften on that one side, about 4 minutes or so, before turning them over and letting them cook for another couple of minutes. Cook them until they just start getting soft—if you let them go too long they will turn to mush and fall through the grates.
8. Grill the peppers skin side down for about 5 minutes, checking to see how brown they’re getting, then flip and cook the second side. If the peppers brown too quickly but still feel really raw and crunchy, you can pile them up on top of each other right on the grill — that way they’ll steam a little bit.
9. You want to keep the sliced torpedo onions intact, so be careful setting them on the grill. Once they have grill marks, flip them over — still being careful, but they will start falling apart at this point — and cook for a few more minutes. Once they have grill marks on the second side, use a spatula to pile them up on a cooler part of the grill to steam, letting the rings fall apart.
10. You’re going to cook the eggplant slower than the other vegetables and on a cooler grill because you want nice marks on the outside and you want to ensure that it is cooked all the way through to the inside. Grill the eggplant just like the squash, but slower, over cooler coals, and poke at it more often to make sure that it is getting tender. There is nothing worse than undercooked eggplant.
11. Honestly, grilling the eggplant is the hardest part of ratatouille. And, honestly, I never let anyone except my co-chef Michael grill eggplant at Camino. And, since we are being honest, we almost always roast the eggplant in the wood oven instead of grilling it. Which is to say that you can put it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast it in your oven at 400ºF until it is brown and tender.
12. After all the grilled vegetables have cooled off a little bit, dice everything into similar size cubes, roughly 1/3 inch. The tomato will be a big mess, but don’t peel it, and try to keep as much of the juice as you can. For the roasted (now entirely blackened) yellow onion, use a knife to peel away the black skin and dice the onion. A little fleck of black here and there is okay. Put all the diced vegetables back into the dish with the collected juices.
13. Heat a pan over medium-low heat, add a good amount of olive oil, and then add the garlic and some salt. Cook it slowly for a couple of minutes until it softens, but don’t get let it get any color. Add the garlic and its oil to the dish with the vegetables. Cut the remaining tomatoes in half and grate them on a box grater over the dish. The skins should end up in your hand and the raw tomato pulp and juice should go into the ratatouille. Coarsely chop the herbs and add them to the dish. Gently mix everything together and taste for seasoning, adding a bit more salt, herbs, or spice mixture if it needs it. Just before serving, heat up the ratatouille in the dish set right on the grill.
Excerpted from This is Camino by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain (10 Speed Press). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Yoko Takahashi.
Chicken Legs Recado Rojo
This is one of the standards of the Yucatán, Maya comfort food. First you make the recado rojo paste out of flavorful spices, then you dissolve that paste in a little bit of orange juice to use as a braising liquid for the chicken and to serve as a thin, brothy sauce. The key ingredient is achiote seeds (also called annatto seeds), which give the paste an amazing garnet color and add a peppery, nutmeggy flavor that pulls off the trick of tasting zingy and earthy at the same time. You could pick up a block of recado rojo at a Mexican market, but this version tastes brighter than what you can buy in a package — the combination of cloves, cumin, and garlic is almost floral. The recipe yields more paste than you will need: store the extra in the refrigerator, where it will keep for 2 weeks, or give it away to friends. — Eric Werner
3 tablespoons achiote seeds
3/4 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
3 tablespoons cloves
3 tablespoons allspice berries
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
3 dried avocado leaves, shredded (or substitute 3 tablespoons fennel seeds)
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican
6 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
8 whole chicken legs
1 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cups water
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 lime, halved, for garnish
1. Make the recado rojo: Soak the achiote seeds in the orange juice in a small bowl until softened, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, toast the coriander, cumin, cloves, allspice, and black peppercorns (plus the fennel seeds, if using) in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 2 to 4 minutes. Let cool, then pulse in a spice grinder until finely ground. Mix with the cinnamon and set aside.
3. Pulse the oregano and avocado leaves in the spice grinder until fine, then sift through a fine-mesh sieve (to catch any fibers that weren’t chopped up by the grinder) and set aside. Crush the garlic with the salt in a mortar and pestle until a rough paste forms.
4. Combine the achiote seeds with the orange juice, the spices, and garlic paste in a blender and blend until smooth, about 1 minute. Divide the paste into three 1/4-cup portions. Wrap 2 portions and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
5. Prepare a grill for medium-high heat. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Season the chicken legs with the salt and pepper. Oil the grill grate. Grill the chicken skin side down until the skin colors and clear grill marks form, about 8 minutes. Do not flip—you just want color on one side. Remove from the grill.
6. Dissolve the remaining 1/4 cup recado rojo paste in the water and add the vinegar. Place the chicken legs grill marks up in a shallow baking pan. Pour the vinegar mixture into the pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Put the chicken in the oven and cook for 45 minutes, or until cooked through. Uncover and return to the oven for 10 to 15 minutes to let the skin crisp up.
7. Serve with the braising liquid and lime. We might add some grilled onion, but no pressure!