By Cinda Chavich
You’ll see the new buzzwords on many menus — burned, blackened, smoked, charred. It’s the latest way to add pizzazz to the plate, whether it’s the blackened edge of a charred Brussels sprout leaf or a dusting of lemon ash across a piece of pristine white halibut.
COOKING WITH FIRE
At The Livet in Victoria, a big charcoal grill sits in one corner of the new restaurant kitchen, the tool that turns out their smoky charcoal chicken and burgers, grilled pork belly ribs and charred steaks. They even cook whole onions in the smouldering ash until they’re smoked and jammy, and blacken oranges for creative cocktails.
The Livet grill was custom made in Texas, complete with a cranked lift to raise or lower the grates, says owner Graham Meckling. Once the lump charcoal burns down, chefs manipulate the distance between the food and the fire to adjust the heat. Meckling says it’s a style of cooking that requires both careful timing and technique.
“There are two sides and zones on the grill to control the heat — it can be searing hot or gentle,” says Meckling. “Cooking this way is both an art and a science.”
Perfecting the caramelized sear and delicious smoky nuances that come with cooking over coals is an old world skill, but one for any serious chef to master. Which is why it seems to be sweeping the nation’s top restaurants.
At Charbar in Calgary, a custom wood-burning grill from Grillworks informs the rustic menu. It’s the same kind of equipment — a massive professional Grillworks Infierno — that has long fired the creative Italian cooking at CinCin in Vancouver, too.
Cooking with wood was the inspiration for celebrity chef Michael Smith’s FireWorks in P.E.I., recently named one of the top new restaurants in Canada. Smith based his new concept on a 25-foot, wood-fired behemoth where a fire brigade of cooks create the nightly communal feast, from smoked salmon to wood-roasted meats, using the wood-fired oven, grill, rotisserie, plancha and smokehouse.
THE SLOW BURN
Ironically, chefs seem to be following home cooks when it comes to the resurgence of charcoal grilling. The wood-fired cooking craze has its roots in the smoky specialties of the American south: traditional smoked brisket, tender barbecued ribs and pulled pork butt, cooked by a new tribe of amateur barbecue enthusiasts.
At Jones Bar-B-Que in Victoria, Chris Jones is adapting traditional Texas barbecue techniques for urban diners. His big electric smokers burn local maple, alder, cherry and oak to add smoky flavour to the pork and beef roasts that spend 10 to 12 hours in the pit to reach tender perfection.
The secret is not high-searing with wood, but rather long, slow, patient cooking at 250˚F. Jones’ advice to home smokers?
“Don’t cut corners on the meat,” he says. “If you’re going to cook something for 12 hours, make sure to start with AAA beef and good-quality pork. Hit your local butcher and look for large racks of pork ribs and well-marbled pork shoulders.”
COOKING WITH WOOD
With a raft of new websites, chat rooms and TV shows dedicated to the art of slow cooking over smouldering charcoal fires, it’s a hobby that’s fun to explore.
I’ve been smoking (my food) for many years and use some basic techniques for almost anything that goes on the smoker. First, create a basic barbecue rub — equal parts of brown sugar, kosher salt and sweet paprika are the base notes, with herbs and spices ranging from garlic powder and cumin to ground ginger, dry mustard, onion powder, chili powder and oregano rounding out the mix.
Everything I smoke, whether it’s pork shoulder, ribs, chicken or beef, is first rubbed heavily with everyday ballpark mustard (the sugar in it is important), then sprinkled heavily with barbecue rub on every surface before going into my ceramic smoker.
A load of charcoal will last all day, the 6 to 8 hours you’ll need to smoke a three-pound pork butt or the 12+ hours for a whole beef brisket. Don’t use charcoal briquettes (infused with chemical starters and binders) — buy natural hardwood charcoal.
Light the charcoal and get the smoker up to the magic 225 to 250˚F, then put the meat on the grill, close the lid and leave it. Adjust the air supply to the fire to keep the temperature low.
Add wood chunks or chips for a burst of smoky flavour during the first few hours of cooking — lighter fruit woods for pork and chicken, more assertive woods like mesquite for beef.
It’s a process that takes time, but one taste of the delicious results, and you’ll be hooked on fire and smoke!
The Livet’s Rib-eye Steak on Charcoal with Ash-Cooked Onions and Pebre
Chefs at The Livet use rib eye or “chuck flat” (the well-marbled cut between the shoulder and short rib) for this dish. Salt and pepper are the main seasonings, with the smoke adding additional flavour.
Use hardwood lump charcoal and light it well in advance: the charcoal will take about 45 minutes to be ready. When the charcoal is white on the surface and glowing orange, it’s ready. Position the grill about 15 to 25 cm above the charcoal, depending on how hot it is. Choose a thick steak and grill for about a minute per side, and turn the meat every 1 to 2 minutes, so the meat will cook evenly.
Once the meat is cooked to medium, let it rest for a couple of minutes to allow the juices to settle, then slice to serve. Make sure to slice the meat against the grain for tender results.
Place unpeeled onions directly into the ash around the smouldering charcoal. The heat should be low, as it will take about 2 hours to cook large onions. Once the onions are soft to the touch, they are ready. Serve with coarse salt and olive oil. Char-grill some carrots for some fresh-veg sweetness if desired.
Pebre is a Chilean condiment/sauce that’s much like chimichurri or pico de gallo. You can serve it as a salad, but it is delicious with beef.
• 1 red onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 tsp salt
• 2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
• 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
• 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
• 1 hot pepper, chopped, or chili flakes to taste
• 2 lemons, juiced
• 1 tsp red wine vinegar
• 2 tbsp olive oil
Dice red onion and garlic and toss with a teaspoon of salt. Let stand 5 minutes, then rinse in cold water and drain well.
In a bowl, combine the onions, garlic, diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro and parsley. Stir in the hot pepper, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. Season with additional salt to taste. Mix well and let sit for about 15 minutes before serving.
What to Drink
There’s something about a backyard barbecue that just cries out for beer, and with so many great local craft quaffers on the market, you can simply pick your seasonal favourite. Chill down a few growlers in a tub of ice on the deck or get a keg from your favourite local brewer. Pale ale, lagers and IPAs — even refreshing wheat beers — fit the bill when you’re serving chicken or pork on a hot day; a darker red ale pairs well with beef. It’s not easy to match wine with sweet barbecue sauces, though a fruity sangria will work with many grilled foods. But also consider a more powerful wine to pair with your smoky meats — a toasty barrel-fermented chardonnay for charcoal chicken, a juicy cherry-berry pinot noir with pork, a big Aussie cab or shiraz with smoky beef brisket. Look for peaty spirits (smoky single malts, bourbon or Canadian whisky) for cocktails to complement barbecue meats.