Posted by Rob Eshman
When was the last time you opened a tub of hummus and swooned? When was the last time a restaurant put a plate of hummus in front of you, and you said, “Oh my God.”
Most of the hummus recipes you come across on web sites, in print, on YouTube—they’re just wrong. Most of the hummus you buy in stores, or get served at restaurants—it’s just okay.
As hummus gets more and more popular, its manufacturers are aiming more and more for the middle. They are substituting variety for quality. You can get mediocre hummus in ten flavors (Avocado! Chipotle!), but try finding just one batch of perfect.
I eat hummus every day. I make it about once a week. I’ve used recipes, I’ve created my own, I’ve tweaked like Steve Jobs (z”l) on a bender. Below you’ll find my basic recipe, which I’ve adapted from Erez Komaravsky’s, the Israeli chef and cooking teacher. (A story on Erez appears in this month’s Saveur, along with the recipe).
Whether you use it or find your own let these rules be your guide.
1. Do not used canned garbanzo beans. Ever. Take the canned beans in your cupboard and give them to a food bank.
2. Fresh ingredients are always better. Always. Fresh ground cumin seeds, fresh squeezed lemon juice, fresh garlic. Never used bottled lemon juice, though a touch of citric acid can help. Erez uses a mortar and pestle to grind his cumin. You’ll taste the difference.
3. Use good quality olive oil. Lots of it. In the hummus, as well as on top.
4. Don’t forget the pepper. I use Aleppo pepper, but hot paprika or ground chili works too.
5. Use water. This is key. Reserve the water you boiled the beans in. As you blend your hummus, add the water to achieve a creamy consistency. Use a bit more than you think is correct, because after it sits you’ll see the water is absorbed. If you’ve refrigerated your hummus, you can refresh it by whisking in some warm water.
6. Serve warm. Freshly made warm hummus topped with a bit of mushed-up garbanzos, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with chopped parsley and paprika is the ideal. And the pita should be warm too.
7. Use a blender, not a food processor. You get a creamier consistency.
[Adapted from Erez Komaravsky. See original here.]
1½ cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight; drained
½ cup tahini
¾ cup EV olive oil, plus more
¼ cup fresh lemon juice or more
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 t Aleppo pepper or 1 small fresh hot red chile pepper, stemmed and seeded
1 1/2 t Kosher salt, to taste
Bring chickpeas and 4 cups water to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until chickpeas are very tender, 1-1½ hours. Drain, reserving ½-1 cup cooking liquid; let cool until warm, not boiling. Transfer all but ¾ cup chickpeas to a food processor with the tahini, oil, juice, cumin, garlic, chile, and salt; purée until smooth. Add reserved cooking liquid and continue to purée until airy in consistency, about 5 minutes. Transfer hummus to a serving dish. Top with remaining whole chickpeas, drizzle with more oil, and sprinkle with salt.
After a a few minutes, taste and adjust seasoning. You may need more water for a creamy texture.
5.16.13 at 12:18 pm | The Internet is a dangerous place, full of bad. . .
5.8.13 at 5:11 pm | The best Israeli breakfast in LA is at
5.1.13 at 3:31 pm | A beautiful article on Erez Komarovsky & Galilee. . .
4.25.13 at 2:36 pm | For us Nissan Leaf drivers, relief
4.11.13 at 3:08 pm | A pre-Passover tradition goes on..and on
4.10.13 at 11:14 am | When I hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, I have. . .
5.16.13 at 12:18 pm | The Internet is a dangerous place, full of bad. . . (1613)
5.8.13 at 5:11 pm | The best Israeli breakfast in LA is at (146)
3.15.11 at 4:50 pm | It's time for Tony Bourdain to go to Israel (69)
May 8, 2013 | 5:11 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Restaurants have souls.
It comes across in the true feeling you get from being there. You don’t find it out from the advertising—otherwise every time you ate in an Applebees you’d feel comfy and at home, instead of bored and dissatisfied. You don’t discover it in the marketing—otherwise every time you ate in a Burger King you’d feel edgy and cool—not gross and sad.
And it doesn’t even come across just from the food. Plenty of places with great food leave you cold. Meanwhile a place with a warm soul like my late, lamented Benice in Venice, may never get a Michelin star, but leave their diners feeling warm and satisfied.
And that explains why a visit to the small and very French bakery / café Tarte Tatin Bakery on Olympic Blvd. near Doheny makes you feel like you’re in…Tel Aviv. The pastries at Tarte Tatin—pains au chocolat, crossants, financiers, and of course tartes tatin—look and taste like something in a Paris window. They are stacked up behind the counter of the tiny all-white space, and they are deceiving. Because as good as they are, as French as they are, as close to the Patricia Wells-ian ideal as they are—the soul of Tarte Tatin is Israeli.
Chef and owner Kobi Tobiano is an Israeli of Algerian heritage. His little gem of a café is the kind of place you’ll find tucked into a side street off Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv. It has no pretensions. The service can be spotty, sometimes rushed, always familiar. The food aspires, and reaches, an international standard. It is small, it hits way above its weight, and it is full of suprises-- that is, Israeli.
The biggest surprise of all: at Tarte Tatin you’ll find the best Israeli breakfast in L.A.
In that imaginary café off Rothschild, breakfast would mean a selection of craft breads, thick lebene cheese doused in olive oil, some feta, olives, chopped tomato and cucumber salad with za’atar, maybe a bite of homemade hummus, and a couple of eggs. Order the Israeli breakfast at Tarte Tatin ($16) and that’s what you get, along with dark, hot coffee. It’s all laid out in neat white ceramic dishes, and every bite recalls Tel Aviv. Ask for Kobi's smoky hot harissa, as well as for a glass of f limonana-- lemonade with mint.
The other surprise is the Tunisian Tuna sandwich ($11.95), which has become my favorite tuna sandwich in the city. Tucked into a soft, homemade French roll you get olive-oil packed tuna, slices of potato, a shmear of that harissa, olives, hard-boiled egg, pickles and slices of preserved lemon.
From where do the excellent olives and lebene in this Israeli-French cafe come from? Kobi's Lebanese supplier, of course. An Israeli chef of Algerian heritage running a French cafe in Beverly Hills using ingredients from Lebanon to make the best Israeli breakfast in all LA... of course.
Tobiano trained professionally as a pastry chef, and served as one at Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco. He arrived in LA and worked as a private chef. Tart Tatin is his dream-come-true place of his own, and as hard as he works—constantly, ceaselessly—and as much as he bemoans his lack of rest, you can tell he has created a place that exactly reflects the food of his heritage, the foods of his home, the foods he loves. That’s what makes Tarte Tatin Bakery special. That’s what gives it it’s soul.
Tarte Tatin Bakery
9123 W Olympic Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA
Note: Tarte Tatin is not certified kosher. But it is certified a Foodaism favorite.
May 1, 2013 | 3:31 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Is Galilee the next Tuscany?
This month Saveur magazine has a beautiful (and beautifully written) feature on the food and cooking of the Galilee region of Israel, by Gabriella Gershenson.
Galilee is indeed one of the world's great undiscovered food regions-- rich in culture, produce, cuisine, even wine.
In writing about the food, she of course must write about the people and their connection to that very special land, and, of course, their recipes.
Gabriella wisely spends time with Erez Komarovsky in Mattat-- Erez, whom I've written about before here-- is the Richard Olney of Israel, and Gabriella paints a picture of her visit to his secluded farm/cooking school that will make any sane person want to get on a plane, fork in hand, and head there now. Here's a sample:
When everything is ready, Erez and I dig in. The cherry and herb salad is zesty and sweet. The recipe is from the Turks, Erez says, who occupied this land for centuries. The roasted eggplant, meanwhile, tastes smoky and fresh, the combination of nutty tahini, hot chiles, and garlic one you'd find all over the Middle East. "In the Galilee, the influences are not from abroad but from the Druze and Arabs living here," Erez explains. "The richness of the culinary knowledge that I get here is unparalleled to what you get in the big city." Here, Erez picks mushrooms with Jewish Moroccans and Kurds, makes goat cheese out of milk from a Druze neighbor, and buys the foods they forage. Because of the divisions inherent in modern Israeli life, and the tensions between Arabs and Jews, his culinary curiosity feels like a political act, one that emphasizes the way the land connects the people. Before I leave, Erez tells me, "Borders are politics. Borders do not cut the food."
April 25, 2013 | 2:36 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Downtown Nissan is having a big celebration this Saturday April 27 to mark the installation of their Fast Charger. There will be test drives, discounts, demonstrations and a free "delicious lunch, brunch or dinner made from 100-percent organic plant-based ingredients." If you're an EV owner or EV-curious, by all means go.
As for me, I couldn't be more thrilled. Here's why:
Part of Foodaism is putting your mouth where your morals are. Hence Mark Bittman's thoughtful new Flexitarian column, which challenges eaters to eat as close to their ethical understanding of food allows-- but no closer.
And hence too my Nissan Leaf, the all electric car I leased two years ago next month. The Leaf was my attempt to live according to my strong belief that our reliance on fossil fuels is killing our planet and saving foreign despots-- when those two verbs should be reversed.
What I found-- and documented here, and here-- is that putting one's morals where one's mouth is can get messy. Because of a bureaucratic snafu, I was not able to install a home charger, so keeping my Leaf fully charged is a challenge (at our offices in Koreatown the landlord likes to turn off the electricity whenever I've tried to charge here). And the funny thing is, as the Leaf has gotten more popular, the challenge has only gotten greater.
That is because of something I'll call, because I can't think of a better term, the Leaf Paradox. Here is what happened. In the beginning, we Leaf owners were few and far between. So while there are few public charging stations, the ones that existed were generally open. I'd drive up, charge, be on my way. Meanwhile, us EV enthusiasts promoted the use of electric cars, and championed our righteousness. The result: more people bought Leafs, and Teslas, and hyprib plug ins. But the number of charging stations hasn't kept up with the number of cars. And because it takes hours to charge a Leaf, and there is zero incentive for a driver to return to his or her car and unplug, finding a charging station is becoming more of a hassle. The number of charging stations and the time people stay pluigged into them can't keep up with the number of EVs. The more successful EV sales are, the bigger the inconvenience. Somewhere there's a TED talk in this-- just not sure where.
One solution is fo there to be more Fast Chargers, like the one now at Nissan Downtown, which is at Washington Blvd near the Grand Street exit. It takes 16 hours to charge an EV from 0-100 percent when plugged into a regular wall socket. The 220v charger can do it in 8 hours. The Fast Charger does it in 30 minutes. And it will give you enough to get on your ay in much less than that.
This morning I drove to Downtown Nissan with my range estimator telling me I had no miles to go-- Zero charge. I met Paul Scott there, the nicest and least-salesman-like car salesman you will ever meet, a true EV believer. He hooked me up to the Fast Charger, and in 25 minutes I was at 80 percent-- enough to drive 70 miles.
I asked Paul if the Fast Charger is generally available, and he said that even when it's being used, "It's not being used for long."
They aren't cheap: $15,000 for the unit, and up to thousands more to install. But iof builders can incoprrate them into new coinstruction, the cost is not consequential, and it will go a long way to creating an EV highway, and resolving the Leaf Paradox.
Here's the info on Saturday's event:
What: Free public test drives of the all-electric, zero-emission Nissan LEAF & unveiling of new EV fast charger
When: Saturday, April 27, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Nissan of Downtown L.A., 635 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90015
Information: Nissan of Downtown L.A. (310) 403-1303
April 11, 2013 | 3:08 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
For years now I have had a pre-Passover ritual: I drink one last beer before the holiday starts.
According to Jewish law, you're forbidden from eating or drinking foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats. Those of you into $10,000 Pyramid would by now have guessed the answer why: these are "Things That Could Be Leavened." And leavened bread is a no-no.
All year I have a, hmm, complex relationship with kosher, outside our home. But for the eight days of Passover, I do avoid these foods. Even though this means avoiding one of my favorite foods, beer.
Usually I just put a bottle aside as we’re cleaning the house in preparation for the holiday, and I make it the last grainy thing to toss out—and I toss it right down my throat.
But this year we celebrated Passover in New York City, and in the apartment where we stayed the only beer was a can of Bud Light, which doesn’t have enough beer flavor to last me through the eight day holiday. Actually, it hasn’t any flavor at all.
I asked Naomi to join me on my quest for a local bar and a last beer and she was game. Usually on the first night of Passover we are home, and I am so busy cooking I won’t see her until the seder starts. Now we had a moment to enter the holiday peacefully, together.
It was cold and overcast and miserable—that is, spring in New York. We soon decided the best bar was the closest one. At 72nd and Columbus, I pulled open the door on the first storefront with with a beer sign in the window – the sign above the door said Malachy’s.
An Irish bar at 4 pm on a Monday in New York City— now that’s some good people watching.
We sat at a small table. I ordered a Guinness, and Naomi nursed a coffee with milk she’d bought from a bakery across the street. Then we began a round of “What’s up with them?”
At the side of the bar closest to the front door sat a single woman, pretty, blonde, in her Anne Klein best, drinking alone. Two musicians walked in, lugging a standup bass in a case. At another table an older, bald man held a series of meetings with a steady stream of rough-hewn deliverymen who came in and out—we figured he was either the owner, or a bookie.
At the other end of the bar stood the bartender. He was a very solid Irishman with the face of former boxer and shiny head, and the older man and woman he talked and joked with seemed to all be on their second or third round.
An ancient black cook emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fried food. His white apron was tied around his rib cage, over a T shirt that said, “I’m the Cook.”
At the four-top beside us sat an odd family assortment—a little girl, an old man, maybe 80, eating fish and chips, and a woman, middle age, likely the mom. After a while these people got up to leave. The older man paid, and I heard him tell the bartender he was about to celebrate his 74th wedding anniversary.
Seventy-four? I had to say something.
"How is that even possible," I asked.
His granddaughter—the woman about our age— explained. They were Jewish. Her grandfather had been coming to Malachy's every year just before the start of Passover to have one last whiskey—a Seagrams VO, on the rocks. He was 99 years old. He'd been coming to Malachy's on the even of Passover, every Passover, for 30 years.
The man and his wife live in Baltimore, but they spend the seder nearby with their daughter and her family.
“One day he went out for a walk to get away from the craziness,” his granddaughter told me, “and he stopped at this bar for a drink, and he’s been coming back ever since. When I was my daughter’s age, he would take me." she pointed to the little girl. " And now he takes his great-granddaughter.”
“He just has a glass of whiskey each year before Passover?” I asked.
Oh, no, the daughter corrected me. “He drinks two every night. He's been doing that as long as I remember.”
The man was tall, straight-backed, and from overhearing their conversation, I could tell he was as sharp as anybody in the place.
I raised my glass to the man and said “L’chaim,” and we wished him a Happy Passover, there in Malachy’s Pub.
The man and his family walked out.
I turned to the bartender and said, "I'll have what he's having."
And I toasted Passover-- and a 99 year old man named Albert-- with my very first sip of Seagrams V.O.
April 10, 2013 | 11:14 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
“And God said, behold, I give you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree-yielding seed, to you it shall be for meat. … I have given every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29-30).
When I hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, I have a habit of snacking. The thing is, I don’t bring along any food. I follow my bible, a stained and dog-earned book on the native foods of the Gabrielino Indians.
The Gabrielinos and the Tongva lived here for thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived (and then, in a relative flash, just about wiped the Indians out). They ate the stuff we ignore — the plants sprouting just about now all over our hillsides, the weeds growing by the freeways, the animals flitting across our driveways.
People who share my admittedly strange obsession about these native foods usually fall into one of two categories. There are outdoor enthusiasts, like the late Euell Gibbons — “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” And there are the survivalists, who plan on hiding in caves with a deer carcass so the Trilateral Commission’s black helicopters can’t see them.
And then there are people like me, who feel that if food connects us to something sacred, native food — unadulterated, undeveloped — connects us to the purest taste of that. It’s weird, I know — especially when my wife catches me nibbling a stalk of wild fennel while we’re walking the dog. But there it is — I admit it.
And last week, I found I wasn’t alone.
An invitation came for a dinner sponsored by the edgy women of This Is Not a Pop-Up. It featured food picked entirely from local areas, foraged by Mia Wasilevich and Pascal Baudar, and prepared by Wasilevich.
The couple forages wild ingredients for the top restaurants in Los Angeles, like Alma, Ludo and Melisse. They lead educational tours into the local mountains and they have a blog on local foraging, called Transitional Gastronomy.
I pulled up a chair at a cafe in Hollywood, and Baudar came by and poured a hot, bright green soup over a tangle of pea shoots, fresh peas and a clump of homemade ricotta.
“Wild sorrel bisque,” he announced in his French-accented English. “With peas, sour grass and chive blossom.”
“Sour grass?” I asked. “What does that look like?”
Baudar brought me a silver canister, brimming with the clean sprays of plants you’ve seen a thousand times in Griffith Park or Temescal. He pinched off a bit of sour grass.
“That’s in my book!” I practically shouted.
He nodded — Baudar was the only other person I’ve met who knew exactly what book I was talking about.
“Then you know the crazy stuff I do,” he said.
The rest of the evening was just as wondrous. Baudar brought course after course from the prix fixe menu, and then showed me and other guests exactly what local plants went into each dish.
The Spring Greens featured capers he pickled himself from local flower buds. I asked Baudar to ID each of the greens, and he leaned a few inches from my plate and picked each delicate leaf: chickweed, amaranth, watercress, miner’s lettuce (“From the side of the hill away from the sun”).
Local black cod came with black garlic butter and spicy wild mustard. It’s the stuff that turns the hillsides along the 101 in Agoura into Monet paintings, and it tastes like freshly grated horseradish. The local oxtail disintegrated into a broth of wild carob, coffee, cleaver (a Gabrielino staple) and milk thistle pickles.
Talk about terroir. Locally grown tomatoes, artichokes, even oranges — they have taken to our region like welcome immigrants. But the foraged ingredients are the land. Baudar poured me a glass of homemade beer — its scent was like I’d rolled down the car window driving through Topanga Canyon.
“I make it with mugwort and white sage and lime,” he smiled. “That’s all.”
The Belgian-born Baudar is tall, thin, with close-cropped gray hair and a scientist’s reserve. Wasilevich is more the earth mother — tanned, dark-haired and a whirl of energy. They wake up at dawn to head out into their preferred spots near Angeles National Forest. It takes three to four hours to come up with the handfuls of greens, oyster mushrooms and other earthly delights necessary to make a meal. It’s impractical to do on a large scale, though Noma in Denmark, named the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant magazine, features a mostly foraged menu.
That made the night even more of a fleeting treat. It is one thing to taste a locally grown tomato — a good, distant cousin to a non-native plant.
But to bite into a piece of fried mallow, a plant that grows in wild, unmolested abundance everywhere I turn, not only tastes of Los Angeles but speaks to a deeper truth. The Bible says it, but we don’t act like we believe it: This earth, if we take care of it, is for us a bounty. Our land is highly edible. God provides.
See photos of this meal and follow more of Rob Eshman’s food writing on Twitter @foodaism.
March 22, 2013 | 1:27 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In this week's Jewish Journal, Joan Nathan reviewed Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's beautiful cookbook, Jerusalem. When I first got hold of the book last year, I knew the dream reviewer would be Joan. She lived in Jerusalem decades ago, serving as an assistant to then mayor, and now legend, Teddy Kollek. And it was in Jerusalem that she first discovered the variety of dishes and stories that make up Jewish cuisine.
Joan's review focuses in on exactly what makes Jerusalem-the-book as fascinating as Jerusalem-the -city. Ottolenghi is Jewish. His partner, Tamimi, is Palestinian. Here's what Joan has to say:
I was very taken with the whole book, but their text in particular, and especially a section called “A Comment About Ownership.”
“In the part of the world we are dealing with everybody wants to own everything,” they write. “Existence feels so uncertain and so fragile that people fight fiercely and with great passion to hold onto things: land, culture, religious symbols, food — everything is in danger of being snatched away or of disappearing.” The two were describing ownership of recipes, but they might as well have been talking about ownership of the city.
My husband calls this part of the world the “Muddle East,” where discussions of who owns hummus and falafel lead to discussions of who owns streets, neighborhoods, borders. Many, like Ottolenghi and Tamimi, are tired of these discussions; they have gone into the food business in London to get away from fighting.
They, like many Israeli chefs, do not want to even think about these differences, about the conflict. Another Israeli cook in New York said to me just last week that he was a “baker, not a battler.” Ottolenghi and Tamimi use their dishes as a way to bridge these divides. “Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct we all share and revel in. It is a shame to spoil it,” they write.
Speaking of sensual pleasure, put this recipe from Jerusalem on your Passover list, and read the entire story here.
PANFRIED SEA BASS WITH HARISSA AND ROSE
3 tablespoons harissa paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 sea bass fillets, or other white fish, about 1 pound in total, skinned and with pin bones removed
Matzah cake meal or flour for dusting
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
6 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Scant 1 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon rose water (optional for Passover)
Scant 1/2 cup currants (optional)
2 tablespoons cilantro, coarsely chopped (optional)
2 teaspoons small dried edible rose petals, available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and online
Mix together half the harissa, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Rub the paste all over the fish fillets and leave them to marinate for 2 hours in the fridge.
Dust the fillets with a little matzah cake meal or flour and shake off the excess. Heat the olive oil in a wide frying pan over medium-high heat and fry the fillets for 2 minutes on each side. You may need to do this in two batches.
Set the fish aside, leave the oil in the pan and add the onions. Stir as you cook for about 8 minutes, until the onions are golden. Add the remaining harissa, vinegar, cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and plenty of black pepper. Pour in the water, lower the heat and let the sauce simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, until quite thick. Add the honey and rose water to the pan along with the currants and simmer gently for a couple more minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings and then return the fish fillets to the pan; you can slightly overlap them if they don’t quite fit.
Spoon the sauce over the fish and leave them to warm up in the simmering sauce for 3 minutes; you may need to add a few tablespoons of water if the sauce is very thick. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with cilantro and rose petals.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
March 5, 2013 | 1:13 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In the winter, I cook in my fireplace.
I’ve been doing this for the past three years, and like any ongoing relationship, I’m getting a little better at it and a little more involved each year. My wife and kids, they think it’s a phase.
But this winter, on a visit to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, I emerged from a garden store carrying a heavy cardboard box.
“What’s that?” my wife said.
“A Tuscan grill!” I said.
Even though people—including my own family—are shocked and surprised and bemused by my obsession, it’s hardly a new idea. A fireplace is just an indoor fire, and people have been cooking on fire for quite some time. Before the advent of the stainless steel range, most cuisine was fireplace cuisine.
Slow-food crusader Alice Waters has been pushing the Tuscan grill, and cooking in the fireplace, for years.
"There is a universal magic in fire that transforms food as it grills," she writes in her book "The Art of Simple Food."
"Grilling is nothing like cooking on a stove top or in a gas or electric oven: There's an unpredictability to it, a wild side, an immediacy that sets it apart."
For the past few years, I’ve been doing a much more rudimentary version of fireplace cooking: balancing a cast iron pan or griddle against some log, hoping the whole thing won't tip over and conflagrate. I wrote about here.
I first saw a Tuscan grill in... Tuscany. We were walking in the town of Greve and I spotted one in a hardware store. On the plane home I regretted not buying it, and until I found the same model on the Internet, I thought my only recourse was to improvise. Then I found one at the Ferry Building.
The Tuscan Grill , from a company called Bella Cucina, comes in a cardboard box printed with the words “BELLA CUCINA.” It is from Tuscany, actually from the town of Chianti. It is a two-step assembly. You turn the frame pieces into an L, then secure them with the two included screws. That takes 2 minutes. You screw the wood handles onto the pre-threaded rods. That’s a minute. I had to wedge the feet of the assembled grill under the exposed gas pipe that ignites my fireplace. It fit snugly, and the dark metal blended into my fireplace. And that was it: now I was ready to cook.
As far as I can tell, there is not a lot of literature on fireplace cuisine. The grill itself came with a single printed sheet showing a pictograph of the assembly. Maybe the Tuscans figured every human, descended as we are from millennia of ancestors who only cooked on fire, just intuitively knows how to do it. Indeed, I figured it out.
You light a fire using dry, hard wood. I use oak. You let the logs burn down to hot embers. You place the grill the right distance from the heat—there are three levels on the frame, and moving the grill with the wood handles is easy. You put your food on the grill. It cooks. The first night I made a chicken that I flattened and seasoned with nothing but salt, pepper and olive oil. I wanted to taste what the fire did to it on its own. It gives the meat a sweet, smoky flavor-- mouth-watering is the word.
The second night I cooked albacore, which I brushed with teriyaki. The third night, my son’s last before returning to college, I went Chianti style—two 2 “ grass fed kosher rib eye steaks, each 1 ½-2” thick, rubbed with garlic, olive oil salt and pepper. The fourth night, chicken thighs, marinated in date syrup, mustard, soy, garlic—a recipe I learned from my sister in law Etti in Israel.
“We are eating a lot of animals,” my daughter pointed out. We were. It wasn’t just the thrill of a new cooking toy. The fire lit something primal in me. It called out for flesh. Squatting by the embers, I could be naked back in the cave. This is as far from the sterile world of the mnodern kitchen as you can get, and still eat at home.
I did supplement with vegetables. One night I grilled portobellos alongside the chicken. I brushed them with olive oil, red wine, balsamic, salt, pepper and garlic. They tasted like steak. I boiled kale, chopped it, mixed it with olive oil, garlic, red pepper and ancovies and set it in a pan on the grate. It continues to cook and gain a rich, wood-oven edge. I did the same with chard. Then, back to dead animals: whole trout, wrapped in the first grape leaves to appear on my vines.
That next morning I took a break from the slaughter and made eggs. I poured some olive oil in a cast iron pan, set it on the grate. When it was sizzling, I cracked two eggs. They cooked in just over a minute. They were crisp-bottomed, slightly smoky—they might have been the best thing to come out of the flames.
Since that week-long flame-fest, I've made turkey burgers and pizza. The burgers were moist on the inside, crisp outside. The pizza was less successful-- the tops just didn't cook in time. Lesson learned.
Now that the weather is warming up (in Los Angeles), I'm using the grill less. And I miss it. There is something about cooking by fire that returns us to the roots of cooking; that is, to the essence of what makes us human.
How to Cook on a Tuscan Grill
1. Before purchasing the Tuscan Grill, check the set-up and dimensions of your fireplace. The supports of the grill are 2 inches high—make sure you have that much clearance.
2. Spray or brush the grill with oil before using.
3. Make a hot fire. I never had to use more than two logs. Allow time for the logs to burn to hot glowing embers. You do not want to cook over leaping flames.
4. Have all your utensils ready: long tongs, a serving platter, heat-proof oven mitts, a knife and fork for cutting meat to test it. I never had to use the mitts because the wood handles stay cool, but then again my hands can tolerate a lot of heat. Have a flashlight handy too.
5. Let the grill heat over the logs. Add your ingredients. Pay attention to hot and less hot spots on the grill, and move the food around accordingly.
6. Fireplaces cook hot and dry and uniquely. Pay no attention to written cooking times—learn to test for doneness yourself.
7. Be careful. You’re playing with fire.