Food & Drink

‘Mallmann on Fire’ puts primitive cooking on the table

Four grilled fish: From ‘Mallmann on Fire.’
Four grilled fish: From ‘Mallmann on Fire.’ Workman

It was a surprise to open a cookbook thinking I’d get new ideas about barbecuing, only to find the chef-author cooking on grills the size of bedsprings. After venturing into Francis Mallmann’s new book, Mallmann on Fire: 100 Recipes, I discovered its purpose is to make Mallmann’s larger-than-life approach to outdoor cooking accessible on a household scale.

Mallmann is a native of Argentina’s remote Patagonia region. His signature outdoor cuisine is based on primitive techniques adapted from South America’s Indians, gauchos and laborers. But Mallmann has also lived and cooked in the United States, France and Italy. The cuisine in On Fire is a fusion of these experiences: “It was from the traditions of those Indians, cowboys, carpenters and stevedores that I learned to take all that I had learned in the temples of European gastronomy as a young chef and simplify it and adapt it to cooking with fire,” Mallmann writes.

South Floridians will soon be able to taste Mallmann’s talent when his newest restaurant opens soon in the Faena complex in Miami Beach (3300 Collins Ave.).

UNIQUE WANDERLUST

On Fire, written with Peter Kaminsky and Donna Gelb featuring photography by Santiago Soto Monllor, is Mallmann’s second book. He calls it “a passionate encounter between wanderlust and cooking.” He traveled widely to gather and create recipes for the book, discovering local ingredients and experimenting with cooking them by fire using these techniques:

▪ Parrilla, or grill, what North Americans typically have in mind when it comes to cooking outdoors. If possible, Mallmann suggests a 36-by-30-inch cast-iron grill set about 9 inches above the ground, supported by a foundation of cinderblocks.

▪ Chapa, or griddle (plancha in Spain), which can be anything from a piece of sheet metal to Mallmann’s preferred cast iron.

▪ Rescoldo, or embers and ashes. Mallmann learned this method from Argentine gauchos. These cowboys bury foods in embers, tend cattle for a few hours and return to a feast. This method can be used in the embers of an indoor fireplace — not likely in South Florida at this time of year — or a campfire.

▪ Horno, or brick or clay oven. Here, Mallmann points to the wood-fired pizza oven as a close cousin. “Many home cooks have built these in their own back yards,” he writes. “It is a marvelous way to cook: great, uniform heat and wood-smoke flavor!”

Mallmann is fortunate in his ability to indulge an appetite for living large. After all, he’s a famous chef, popular TV personality, hotelier and successful restaurateur. Despite his seemingly complex life of travel, business empire and multiple residences, though, Mallmann’s approach to food embraces simplicity.

Ingredients are minimal, fresh, and paired in unique and unexpected ways. He chars and burns herbs, greens, fruits and vegetables to give them the taste of fire, as in Grilled Short Ribs with Vinegar-Glazed Charred Endive; Coal-Roasted Zucchini and Swiss Chard; and Griddled Red Pears Wrapped in Iberico Ham.

Beans braise for hours over the fire with red wine and tomato or a concoction of smoky pork and seasonings. Vegetables and seafood bask in egg tortillas. Desserts make it onto the fire, too. There’s lightly charred sponge cake filled with fruit and caramel cream (Pionono with Dulce de Leche and Strawberries), or homemade ice cream paired with grilled fruits.

A STEAK TO REMEMBER

I selected what I thought the most foolproof recipe: grilled bone-in rib steaks. I got a pair of inch-thick ribeyes from the butcher plus fresh herbs to make Côte de Boeuf a la Parrilla with Maître d’Hôtel Herb Butter.

Mallmann gives stern instructions about correct outdoor cooking tools and techniques. Using the right fuel is key. To test his recipe, we had to shun our propane grill. Instead, my husband, Mike, built a fire pit of cinderblocks near the back steps for our own parrilla. We bought a small grate at Home Depot and used hardwood lump charcoal (no substitutes, Mallmann is adamant).

The steak was wonderful, juicy and tender. A light vinaigrette basting sauce kept the meat moist without overwhelming its flavor. Mallmann’s ingenious basting brush of fresh herb twigs (he suggested thyme; we used rosemary) worked beautifully and had the added benefit of being disposable. The charcoal fire gave the steak that special outdoor flavor a sterile propane grill simply can’t match.

We were less enthusiastic about the Maître d’Hotel Herb Butter, likely because we again substituted rosemary for the suggested thyme, resulting in a flavor more like chopped Christmas tree than gourmet accompaniment.

I tried two intriguing bread recipes because baking is usually a safe bet for me and I dislike wasting ingredients. Having been given Mallmann’s dispensation to bake in my conventional oven rather than a horno, I undertook Pan de Molde, so called because is cooks in a loaf pan.

Mallmann describes it as “a heavy, no-knead dark loaf,” delicious as a breakfast bread when toasted. I found this loaf to be so heavy it actually resisted toasting. Nor was the balance of flavors quite right. I followed the recipe carefully, and can only guess that my lackluster results were due to differences in humidity, altitude or — perhaps more likely — the chemical makeup of comparable ingredients in South America.

HAT TIP TO THE GAUCHOS

My primitive Chapa Bread was delicious when slathered with butter, even though the texture wasn’t quite right. “Our romantic, rough-and-tumble gauchos would split open the bread and toss in a slice of meat straight from the parrilla,” said Mallmann’s introduction to the recipe.

Confession: I reverted to our propane grill to cook my chapa bread, and even with the gas flame on high, my disks of bread cooked much more slowly on the griddle than they would have over Mallmann’s recommended charcoal fire. The bread — though tasty — was dry, more like a thick cracker. A really thick cracker. Rather than split open my bread, those rough-and-tumble cowboys would probably have used it for target practice.

On Fire is a big book. Narrative is colorful and ample. Sprawling scenic photographs show Mallmann cooking outdoors in settings from rugged beach to snowy plain. Photos of plated dishes are artfully styled. Pictures of various foods cooking on parrilla or chapa illustrate how Mallmann creates his outdoor stoves with rings of stones or river rocks. Recipes are generally healthy and well-balanced. Delight comes from flavor of fire and grill, not large amounts of butter and sugar.

There’s even a piece about Mallmann’s collection of textiles, how he thinks of them as a tangible journal of his past and uses them to make the spaces in his life more beautiful and comfortable (as in, adding color to his bathroom in Buenos Aires, with its three sofas).

Recipes are in legible text that leaves no doubt about the bottom number in fractional measurements for those wearing trifocals. Instructions read clearly, although inexperienced outdoor cooks might want to be wary of a tendency to oversell the results.

This beautiful book is both travelogue and outdoor cooking handbook. If you find yourself tamping down feelings of envy about Mallmann’s footloose, relaxed yet exciting lifestyle, you won’t be alone. Just face it. We can’t all grill fish on a remote beach in Patagonia. But we can let Mallmann help us do it in our own back yards.

By the Book is an occasional feature that checks out recipes from new cookbooks. Ibby Vores last wrote about The Cuban Table.

FYI

What: “Mallmann on Fire: 100 Recipes.”

Who: Francis Mallmann with Peter Kaminsky.

About: 320 pages, hardback.

Publisher: Workman.

Price: $40.

Côte de Boeuf a la Parrilla

1 bunch thyme

2 strips lemon zest

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup medium-bodied red wine

1 (1 1/2- to 2-pound) bone-in ribeye steak, about 1 1/2-inch thick

Heat a charcoal grill or a deep-ridged cast-iron grill pan over medium heat. Tie the thyme sprigs together with kitchen twine to use as a basting brush. Whisk together the lemon zest, salt, pepper, olive oil and red wine in a bowl. When cooking surface is hot, salt one side of the meat, put it salt-side down on the grill, and cook, without moving it, for 5 minutes. Baste the top with oil-wine liquid, then rotate meat a quarter turn to form crosshatched grill marks. Baste the top again. Grill for 4 minutes, then salt the meat, flip it over, and repeat. When the internal temperature reads 120 degrees, the steak will be rare (it will rise a few degrees as it rests). If you prefer it a little more cooked, give it another minute or two. Meanwhile, slice the chilled herb butter (see recipe). When the meat is done, transfer it to a carving board with some herb butter beneath it and the rest on top. Let the meat rest 5 minutes before carving.

Source: “Mallmann on Fire: 100 Recipes,” by Francis Mallmann (Workman, $40).

Maitre d’Hôtel Butter

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme

2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Put the butter in a small bowl, add the minced thyme, parsley and lemon juice, and mix together with a fork until well combined. Turn out onto a length of plastic wrap and, using the plastic to help you, form into a log about 1-inch thick. Chill to firm.

Source: “Mallmann on Fire: 100 Recipes,” by Francis Mallmann (Workman, $40).

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