Playing with fire.
When temperatures are on the rise outside, fewer people prefer to cook on an indoor range, especially when entertaining. Instead, they head to outdoor grills, lighter fluid on the ready. We thought it wise to seek advice from a professional who’s well-versed in catering to different tastes and groups. Meet Nick Weber, executive chef at 24 Carrots, who’s worked in kitchens large and small. Here, he offers a fair share of advice for those of us aspiring to step up our game when it comes to cooking with fire. We spent one recent morning at the 24 Carrots headquarters, grilling Chef on his technique.
OK, Chef, how would you set us up for success when cooking with an open fire? The flavors from wood or charcoal are 100 times better than any gas grill, in my opinion. When it comes to getting a fire started when using hard charcoal, simply light the bag on fire. For wood, use small kindling, building a little teepee structure with some crushed paper towels underneath. Then carefully add small pieces of timber until those are glowing.
Have you ever worked with wood-burning pizza ovens? I imagine they can be fickle. I do have experience with pizza ovens. The trick with those is figuring out the different hot and cool spots in the oven.
Great tip! Back to grilling… What’s the first tool you reach for when you’re out there cooking? I prefer a small pair of tongs. You have more control, and your hands get used to the heat. I also like having a large scoop handy to move the coals around and control the heat.
Let’s get into the actual cooking process. How do you know when steak reaches a specific doneness, without slicing it and losing all the juices? I use a metal cake tester to check for doneness. I insert it into the protein for a few seconds, and then press the tester under my lip to feel how hot it is.
I’d imagine things can get a bit more complicated when cooking for larger groups at special events. Are there factors that aren’t on your side when you’re working around an open flame? Timing is always a factor at events, especially during wedding receptions. Speeches almost always run over.
Cocktail pairings are as popular as wine pairings nowadays. Do you have any guidelines when crafting a re-centric menu to complement boozy beverages? My motto with pairings is KISS, as in Keep It Simple, Stupid. Too complex a cocktail can ruin a good, smoky dish.
Tell us about one of your most memorable meals prepared with flames. One of my favorites was at Bazaar Meats in Las Vegas. I’ve been so many times that I’ve practically ordered the whole menu. The suckling pig is by far my favorite, as well as the grilled vegetables.
A lot of people have a go-to dish when it’s time to make dinner. Do you have a go-to for cooking with flames? My go-to dish is live diver scallops in the shell. I stuff them with koji butter, and bury them in white-hot coals to cook.
And, finally, we like to end things on a sweet note. What are your thoughts on desserts cooked over a fire? I basket-grill strawberries on the cooler side of the grill. It not only gives them a subtle smoky quality, but it intensifies the sugars. I also like to do clafoutis, a fruit-filled French flan, in the wood-burning oven.
Grilled to Perfection
When asked about grilling techniques used in other countries, Executive Chef Nick Weber noted that in Argentina, folks cook with a specially designed grill that has sloped, V-shaped grates. The angle allows rendered fat and juices from meats to collect in a drip tray. The end result: easy-to-baste proteins.
From left to right: Charcoal-roasted sweet potato, Charcoal-grilled cheese with wild mushrooms, Cast-iron biscuits with charred citrus, yogurt and lemon-curd herbs, Charred apples with cherrywood-smoked ice cream and grilled crepes.
Click here to read more about Nick Weber.