Planning Your Wood-Fired Oven Meal
As Francis Mallmann puts it, “Cooking with wood fire is like going on a first date. It is something you look forward to with great anticipation and a little anxiety.”
If you are like me, you will have a little bit of anxiety before entertaining, mostly to make sure everything runs smoothly upon the arrival of your guests and a the same time you don’t want to spend all your time next to the oven (well, maybe you do…), but you want to sit down and enjoy your friends. Well, that’s the beauty of cooking in your wood fired oven: your typical dish schedule – appetizer, main dish, side dish, dessert – works perfectly well with the high – medium – low heating cycle of your oven. And the fact that simple recipes work best in the oven anyway, allows you to pick recipes that can be prepared ahead of time and that require minimum handling in the outdoor kitchen.
Although a wood fired oven doesn’t have a dial on it where you can adjust the temperature on and off, you will enjoy a very nice constant radiating heat as you cook, which is ideal for any dish, especially meat. And once the wood fired oven is heated thoroughly it will stay hot until the next day.
It is important to keep a good stash of dry hardwood to make starting the fire really easy and enhance the taste of the food you cook. Use Peter’s method of firing up the oven, so that you have a uniformly hot oven with a minimum amount of wood for a maximum amount of cooking time.
Appetizers are a wonderful way of greeting your friends and they keep everyone happy while other things are baking in the oven. They are a great fit for the initially hot oven as it is easy to find recipes that can be baked at 650-600 degrees F, floor temperature. Best way of measuring temperature inside the oven is by using a hand-held infrared thermometer and point it at the oven floor. (We include this thermometer in each oven kit, and it is also available in our online store.)
My favorite appetizers are oven made pizzarollis, and flat breads because they pair well with cheeses, or prosciutto and figs, and such fun starters. Alternatively, if I am harvesting cherry tomatoes in the garden, I grill them quickly or place them in a cast iron skillet whole, with a bit of olive oil, close to the entrance of the oven, until they are burnished on the outside and release all their sweetness on the inside. Then I smash them slightly with a fork and mix them with olive oil, a little bit of crushed fresh garlic, basil, salt, and spoon this goodness over a grilled slice of Italian bread, for a quick bruschetta, served along with local cheese. To grill the bread slices, you can place them on directly on the hot oven floor or on a hot grill, and use tongs or a fork to turn.
As the oven cools a little, it’s time for the main dishes.Leaving the door open will bring the temperature in the oven down to 550-500 degrees F (floor temperature) and this is ideal for a chicken, or a lamb, or a small roast that you’ve prepared ahead of time in a metal pan. Place a small piece of wood on top of the bed of coals that you moved to the left or right side of the oven, and slide the pan in, opposite side from the coals. The meat will sear very nicely as the dome of the oven reflects heat all around it, and will acquire a crispy outside flavored with the smoke of the fire. You can cover the meat loosely with foil either at the beginning or the end of the cooking cycle to brown the meat. (When using a recipe written for a regular oven, just add about a hundred degrees and reduce the cooking time to about a third.)
Fish I usually place on a oven proof dish and keep it closer to the door, since it doesn’t require high temperature. Or wait until the oven is at about 450 degrees F if you want to bake a tender fish filet. It’s fun to grill a lobster, halved, on a grill placed close to the opening and with the coals raked under it.
Along with the main dish, you can fit a few pans with side dishes, such as potatoes, mushrooms, artichokes which all acquire a great smoky taste in the wood burning oven. Or slide in an eggplant parmesan that your assembled the day before.
Once you’ve taken out the main dish and the side dishes, the oven is ready for cooking a dessert. Something simple with lots of butter and sugar… since these caramelize deliciously in the pizza oven! Your guests will beg you to invite them again.
Buon appetito from Los Angeles Ovenworks!