Fireplaces provide warmth, comfort and ambience during our seemingly endless winters. But for a growing number of Minnesotans, they also serve as a year-round cooking tool.
The first time Ingrid Norgaard had dinner at the home of her friend and fellow gastronome Bill Summerville, she had no idea what he was going to make. "And then he put a whole chicken in the fireplace," she said. "It was the middle of summer."
Norgaard was an immediate convert, and has even co-hosted pop-up restaurant-syle gatherings with Summerville built around fire-fueled foods. "Grilling and cooking in a fireplace are basically the same thing, but is [fireplace cooking] more romantic? Yes," she said "I get the magic. I thought it was kind of silly, and now if I had a fireplace, I would use it three or four times a week."
Norgaard is proof that, as Summerville says, it's not just a guy thing.
"This is a guy thing because we love fire, but it's not just a guy thing. … I love feeling like a cave man, but it's really communal," he said. "I love cooking alone with the solitude of winter and the coziness the fireplace creates, but most Sundays my COVID family [of friends] comes over.
"Fire is such an archetypal thing for humans and animals. My pet goes right to it. It's in us."
It certainly has been in Kevin Chase's family since 1976, when his father, David, built a house in White Bear Lake with a "see-through" fireplace that opened to the kitchen on one side and the living room on the other.
"He thought, 'Well, I have a nice fireplace, wouldn't it be fun to cook chili in an iron pot, or grill steaks?' " Chase said. "He put in this little strong arm, and we started a tradition of chili, and moved on to oyster stew."
That's an important and inspiring aspect of fireplace cooking: The culinary options are virtually endless.
Norgaard has brought a sous-vide-cooked leg of lamb to finish over Summerville's fire. He has placed lamb shoulder off to the side to let it cook slowly and get smoky, and done the same with eggplant and root vegetables ("celery root can be really, really gorgeous cooked that way," he said).
Slow and low
While the possibilities might be limitless, Summerville does have his favorites, which range from short ribs and fish to salad.
"Most people think short ribs need to be stewed or braised. I've grilled them for a handful of minutes and let them rest at the edge of the fire for a long time," he said. "I love to put a chunk of Gruyère in a cast-iron skillet. Whole fish is a lot of fun, and one of my favorite things to do is grill romaine and create a Caesar-esque dressing and put it on while it's hot.
"But there's nothing I like more than a gigantic rib-eye marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and when I pull it off and let it rest, I put more olive oil on. The olive oil and the juices from the steak create their own sauce."
If that sounds like the best bistecca alla Fiorentina ever, Summerville comes by it honestly. Before his longtime gig as manager/sommelier at the revered La Belle Vie — he now focuses on private dinners, called Chez Bill — Summerville lived in Italy, and while there found an antique grill plate that he uses regularly. Recently he utilized it to make a dish he concocted with chefs Jamie Malone and Daniel del Prado: shucked oysters with a dollop of crème fraîche and topped with cracked black pepper.
It should come as no surprise that Charlie Broder, co-owner of the Broder restaurant group and part of Summerville's "COVID family," also has an Italian bent. He does love steak, whole fish and "foilers," pouches with either cauliflower or a medley of chopped potatoes, onions, olive oil and/or butter. But he recently has been delving into Southeast Asian dishes, finding great success with local chef Yia Vang's Hmong chicken recipe and a Thai-style marinated pork tenderloin.
Good coals, and sometimes charcoal
The variations in food are almost matched by the variations in fuel. Summerville favors birch logs because of the smell and crackling sound the bark makes. Chase and his brother-in-law, Joe Stich, who caught the fire-cooking bug when he joined the family, like to throw chunks of apple, cherry, maple or pecan wood onto the burning pyre. Broder goes an indoor-outdoor hybrid route, mixing charcoal briquettes with wood. He even has ordered Thai charcoal from the famous (but now closed) restaurant Pok Pok in Portland, Ore.
Because Broder's insert is elevated, causing the wood to burn to ash rather than heat-producing embers, he has placed briquettes directly on the insert or even removed the insert and placed charcoal on the floor of the fireplace. "Logs impart way too much smoke," he said. "You really want the fat drippings to hit coals. That way, cooking over fire is integral in terms of flavor profile. You don't get the same type of flavor development when broiling."
Whatever the method, hearth cooking is now a fiery fixture in the Broder household.
There's even more of a social aspect at Chase's fireplace, with Stich and their spouses and friends gathering for fireside cocktails to watch the cooking magic unfold. Even 15 years after his father died, this remains a family affair.
"My kids didn't care much about it growing up," Chase said, "but now they're saying, 'Hey, when are we going to get to take over the fire?' "
If you're thinking of giving fireplace cooking a try, here are some suggestions from our local fire aficionados.
Equip thyself: A handheld grill basket or tongs can be used to hold the food over the flame. Cast-iron skillets and pots are staples. Installing an arm in the fireplace — which allows you to hang pots above the fire — broadens options considerably.
Approach: "Start with something simple that you already know," said Ingrid Norgaard, "like a grilled cheese in a cast iron, and just give yourself some time and be kind to yourself." Added Bill Summerville: "It's all about experimenting and not worrying about how it turns out."
Stay on top of it: "One of the hardest parts is fire management," said Charlie Broder, "and paying close attention because it can change so quickly."
Ongoing issues: Kevin Chase's family learned early on that when slow-cooking in iron pots, the bottom eventually will get burned. He also added that this practice often is messy. "It takes awhile to clean the rack, and we've got grease strips on the hearth."
Bill Ward is a Twin Cities freelance writer and the author of decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.