"You need a sturdy grill, a plancha perhaps, a good shovel with long handles so you don't get burned..."
Francis Mallmann, Patagonian wise man, roving Argentine chef and silver-haired patron saint of open-fire cookery, is standing in my Brooklyn backyard, casually cataloging a few items that would be useful in tackling the techniques described in his new book, Mallmann on Fire ($40).
But, he points out, you don't need a big, tricked-out grill or the acreage for a Burning Man-sized pyre to cook in the spirit of the book. He figures that 80 percent of the recipes in the book can be successfully made on grill pans over hot ranges or in the oven.
What is necessary is taking your time. Cooking over wood and coals is not the same as fast-searing boneless chicken breasts on a gas grill. It's an elemental process that repays your close attention with food that just tastes better.
"Most of all, you need patience," Mallmann says. "You need time. There are things you can do very fast like the peaches we're going to make where you just want to burn the sugar and peaches and figs and not really cook them through. But mostly being in a hurry is not a good plan."
The chef, who has restaurants in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and in Uruguay and was recently featured in an episode of PBS's The Mind of a Chef series, rests a cast-iron pan on a jerry-rigged grill set at an angle over a small circle of flaming logs in a Brooklyn backyard. Into the pan goes a handful of sugar and, as that caramelizes and bubbles, halved peaches, pits still in.
"With this simple fire you could feed 12 or 16 people," Mallmann says. "You don't need a lot of space. When we do our TV shows, we try to get people to go outside. Go into the wild if you can—or just a park or the doorsteps of your own home. Walk out of the kitchen and do something different, that's the idea."
What makes us happy about the Mallmann approach is how seemingly simple it all is. Make a fire, put the food near or above (but usually not right on top) of it. And wait.
Recently, Mallmann has been hanging meat from a string, high above the flame and letting it turn over the low heat.
"The slowness is great," Mallmann says. "If you hang a very big piece of rib eye and cook for nine hours, you will get the same temperature and pinkness throughout. Chickens roasted for six or seven hours; it's incredible how crisp they are."
The recipes we cooked with Mallmann don't require quite that time commitment. To start, the chef steps away from the fire for an easy salad of amber-colored dates, Bartlett pears, mint and creamy blue cheese (see the recipe). While you're enjoying that, let a butterflied chicken cook gently on the parilla (grill) for nearly an hour (see the recipe). Peaches and figs are quickly burnt in caramel, deglazed with amaretto and prettily topped with lemon zest and freshly plucked mint leaves (see the recipe).
"There's a silent language to cooking that you can't write down," Mallmann says, watching the fire intently. "It comes from repeating it so many times. You learn by feeling, smelling, touching. You need to crave the romance of cooking with fire. That, or one can just eat at McDonald's, you know? There is happiness for everybody."