Netflix gets a bad rap for being a place to travel when uninspired. In our lives, at least, it seems if we are at home around meal-time and without prior arrangements or motivation to do something ‘productive’ (ie. reading, board games, phone calls with loved ones/friends, etc.) our default is to throw on Netflix and join the legions of screen-gazing zombies. I find it ironic then, that we’ve been really inspired by Netlix lately (as opposed to typically uninspired)! Specifically by a series called Chef’s Table. If you’ve seen it before you’ll know already that each episode features a world-renowned chef, inside and outside the kitchen. The minds of these chefs are incredible, mixing art and science with the goal of exploding tastebuds (like this clip from the Simpsons)! One episode that really resonated with me was a feature on Argentinian chef, Francis Mallmann.
This guy is great (notwithstanding some of his views on relationships and polygamy). What really struck me was his simplified use of heat and fire to cook *primarily* meat. Cool, right? Er… I guess ‘hot’ would be more appropriate… Maybe it’s my inner caveman or maybe the fact that I’ve been dabbling in the Paleo Diet lately, but I was really enticed by the straightforwardness of this style of cooking. Build a fire, cook meat, enjoy. There’s a certain poetry in that, which I can grasp. There’s this one shot where Mallmann (not to be confused with Moleman) and his cronies are preparing a meal using an earthen pit. In Patagonia they call this technique “curanto”.
I wanted to learn more. Through the help of a up-and-coming site called The Google, I stumbled upon plenty of examples of cultures who share similar techniques. For instance, indigenous people on Vancouver Island used pit cooking to break down complex sugars in camas bulbs to produce sweet fructose. Fijians have the lovo, Hawaiians have the luau, middle eastern cultures have a variation. Everyone’s doing it… But not poor, oppressed Aaron… Until now!
I found some difficulty in generating resources, mainly attributed to conflicting names varying between ‘pit cooking’, ‘fire pit slow cooking’ and ‘earthen oven’. Once I determined what I should be searching, I had to determine which technique to emulate. Some of the how-to guides advocated use of stones to retain heat, while other said lay the meat directly on coals; some suggested covering the pit with a tarp (this one was easily dismissed as a bad idea), others advocated plywood or a twig/stick lattice. I eventually stumbled upon this comprehensive guide by Mother Earth News, which I followed with slight modifications accounting for materials available. Before I go on I would like to give my vegetarian wife a big shout out for her support of this meat-heavy undertaking; including preparing the pit and vegetables.
Step 1: Prepare the Pit
We decided to go with the simple approach of digging a pit (~3′ deep x 3′ wide x 2′ deep) as opposed to sourcing clay and straw to build a cob earthen oven. Once dug, we used flat stones to line the bottom and side of the pit. Flat as they occupy less space and generally fit together with ease compared to round stones. We selected stones that appeared dry and to have been on the surface for some time. This was to compensate for the fact that I was scared shitless of exploding stones due to moisture!
Step 2: Build Fire
We started the fire approximately 7 hours before the anticipated meal time to permit time to build a rager and allow it to burn completely down to white embers + cooking time. It took about 3 hours for the fire to burn down. The idea being that the fire/embers release their heat to the lined rocks.
Step 3: Cook
After the fire burnt down, we swept the embers to the side. We then placed a layer of leafy greens, which included rosemary, thyme, fennel, arugula, sage and swiss chard. On top of the greens go the meat (whole organic chicken from Costco) + veggies (beans, carrots, potatoes, carrots, garlic, onion). We then placed another layer of leafy greens plus about 1.5 cups of water onto the meat/veggies. The water you add, plus the moisture from the greens, vaporize into steam and it is that which essentially cooks your food. Infuse some of the flavours from the herbs you add and you have a damn flavourful meal. On top of everything we applied a tin slab (gotta love living on a farm with tons of readily-available materials!) and covered around the edges with soil from the excavated pit. The idea being that you seal off all air from entering the pit, thereby nuking the fire and ensuring your food will cook solely from the slow-release of heat from the heated rocks plus steam.
Pit covered with soil:
This meal took a while to cook, as expected, but it was a great opportunity to sun bathe (all of 5 minutes required for my Scottish skin) and read my book. In total it took about 3.5 hours to cook.
Step 4: Enjoy
Upon the great unveil I was pretty worried that after all that time and effort the meal would be a flop. Thank the good lord above that it turned out swimmingly, if I do say so myself! Everyone seemed pretty stoked. We had a fantastic meal, which also involved a lovely garden fresh salad from Helen and homemade dolmadakia stuffed grapes leaves that Lana and her mom made! Mmmm mmm.
Well, there you have it folks: Pit Cooking 101 with your guide, Aaron. For any questions/comments please leave a message! Thanks again to all the gang at Middle Mountain Mead (+ Brenda!) for making one little boy’s dreams a reality.