When the air turns crisp and the bugs finally go to wherever bugs go when it gets cold, I think to myself, “I should make getting dinner ready harder than it already is between practices, games, and never-ending errands–let’s cook in the outdoor fireplace tonight!”
For my foray into pre-industrial revolution cooking, I was feeling like roasted artichokes, lamb burgers with goat cheese, sweet potato spears provençal, and baked pears with cherries. I’m still feeling and tasting my way through French wines, and other than a Bordeaux with beef, I depend on googling the wine selection at Wegman’s trying to find a good fit. I came across a 2008 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac for $55 and with a little sleuthing I found out that while 2008 wasn’t the greatest year for Bordeaux, it is a good vintage for Pauillac and it is recommended with lamb—into the cart it went. I know that food and wine from the same region marry well, so for the provençal flavorings I grabbed a 2011 Minervois from Hecht & Bannier in the south of France. I’ve had the Minervois and their Côte du Roussillon Villages and I think both outperform their $20 price point. I decant both bottles and remember to write the name of the wine on the decanter because sometimes my wine comparison experiments end up as blind taste tests.
I start the fire before I begin any of the food prep so that the bed of coals can get white hot. And I’ve learned the hard way, quite literally, that foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes can end up only partially cooked in the fire, so I prep the sweet potatoes first. I quarter each sweet potato to help speed up cooking time and place in the side of the fireplace. It’s a good time to add a couple of more logs.
Next, I want to steam the artichokes to tenderness before I grill them because nobody has that much time. The artichokes are too big to fit the lid of my steamer insert, so I just cover them with a tea towel to keep them bathed in steam. When I can easily pierce one of the outer leaves with the tip of my knife (20-25 minutes), I turn off the heat and let them hang out there until I’m ready to grill.
The biggest reason I make roasted artichokes is to eat aioli. My version is more of a Faux-oli. I start with store-bought mayo, and add lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste. Now it’s time to run back outside and add more logs to the fire.
I want to get dessert started and in the fire before I begin grilling dinner. A cast iron skillet is perfect for cooking directly in the fireplace, so to mine I add butter, brown sugar, pears, and frozen cherries and top it all with a little more brown sugar and butter. I cover the skillet with aluminum foil and stick the skillet on the other side of the fireplace from the sweet potato packets. I check on the fire to add my last logs and clean and oil the fireplace grill grate.
Back inside, I check my pedometer app to see if I’ve hit 10,000 steps yet from the continuous loop between the kitchen to the fireplace and brush the artichoke halves with olive oil and some flaked sea salt.
To grill the artichokes, I pull some of the white hot coals under the grill grate and place the artichokes cut side down on the grate. It takes about 15 minutes to get a nice char on the artichokes and as I take them off, I pull some more coals under the grill and add the lamb burgers to cook to medium-rare. More information at Recipes, more what you’d call guidelines than actual recipes
Now it is my favorite part of the whole evening—time to eat and drink! We start with the Minervois because I’m betting that the sharp, wild berry flavor can not only stand up to the lemon and garlic in the aioli but will complement the earthy, smoky taste the artichokes picked up from the wood fire.
I serve the Pauillac with the lamb burgers and the sweet potato spears. It is smooth and surprisingly light bodied. It pairs well enough with the meal – like a boring, well-behaved dinner guest, it is inoffensive and doesn’t detract from the meal, but forgettable.
To top the baked pears, I whip heavy cream with vanilla, and a couple splashes of Four Roses bourbon and that pairing was a winner.
The Minervois was what we finished sitting by the fire. There was nothing wrong with the Pauillac and there is something to be said for a wine that won’t compete with the food. My Bordeaux conundrum is that I can find $150 bottles that are amazing and I enjoy what is probably a $15 bottle at the local French brasserie, but I am always disappointed with the bottles in between. I’m not sure if my expectations are out of whack, and while I don’t think the Pauillac at $55 should be three times better than the Minervois at $20, I do think it should be noticeably better.