A Field Guide to Cooking Fireside

James-Beard-award winning author Jordan Mackay finds comfort in winter outside the kitchen -- and from a little fire and wine.
Fireside cooking

Written By:
Jordan Mackay

Photos by:
Jordan Mackay & Verve Staff

Much of the country has taken a polar pounding this winter, be it blizzards in New England to ice in Texas to pelting rain in California. During these periods when daylight is short and we are forced into long hours indoors, the two best bulwarks against ennui and SAD (seasonal affective disorder) are an active kitchen and a cozy living room around a fire.

The two are, of course, connected. Good food and drink warm the body’s interior. And, likewise, a cozy home interior kindles a desire for comfort food and a warming drink. Thus, it follows that combining the two is the ultimate antidote to the struggles of winter: Turn your fireplace into your kitchen.

You don’t need to be Francis Mallman to bask in the rustic pleasures of putting everyday fires to work. Live fire cuisine is all the rage for good reason: It strums our deep seeded, primal yearnings for nature, freedom, and the wild. It’s also satisfyingly efficient, as the cooking medium becomes the main seasoning. And finally, a subtle spot of smoke and a scintilla of char lift ordinary foods into the sublime. 

My inspiration has been Sashi Moorman, best known as the extremely talented winemaker behind such iconic brands as Sandhi and Evening Land. Sashi also happens to be an incredible chef, who cooks regularly and beautifully in his fireplace (thanks to the Pacific, it’s so cool where he lives, he can comfortably have fires year-round). While he’s far more accomplished in the fireplace than I am, over years of many incredible meals at his house, he’s demonstrated what’s possible. While, admittedly, on these rare nights I’m often too wrapped up in great conversation to meticulously detail his technique and then end up drinking too much to accurately remember what I did observe, he’s generously detailed some of them on Instagram, which is worth checking out.

Pretty much anything you can do on a conventional range you can do in the fireplace, which simultaneously supplies both the direct heat of a burner and the ambient, radiant heat of an oven. Instead of turning knobs, however, you use different parts of the fire and hearth and employ patience until your coals reach the desired heat.

A few preparations are essential. One, use only hardwoods—oak, hickory, maple, and fruit and nut woods. Avoid softwoods like pine or cedar, which are resinous and whose smoke will impart acrid flavors and even make people sick. Two, burn the fire for at least an hour, if not two, before cooking on it. The core of heat you need comes not from the flickering of flames but from a well-developed coal bed built over time. The added benefit is that it heats the stone in your hearth, providing the radiant heat that makes fireplace cooking unique.

Dishes cooked in sealed vessels, such as stews, can be done in the fireplace, but won’t absorb any smoke. However, anything grilled or roasted will cook admirably in the fireplace. As far as equipment, some sort of campfire grill is essential. Search that term, and you’ll find many inexpensive options. Almost anything that works for a campfire will function equally well in the home. A pricier option, an adjustable tool called a Tuscan Grill, as seen here, allows you to raise and lower the grill surface. But most of the time, for things like chops and steaks, you’ll want to be closer to the coals, and simply resting the grill on a couple of logs with hot coals underneath is easy enough.

"Live fire cuisine is all the rage for good reason: It strums our deep seeded, primal yearnings for nature, freedom, and the wild."

Beyond grilling, the fireplace is also a wonder for roasting, which can be as simple as placing a roast off to the side of the coals and turning it often until ready. Or, as I’ve lately been doing, create a vertical rotisserie. With a string, suspend your roast (such as a trussed chicken) over a drip pan as close as possible to the fire in front of the fireplace. Give the string a twirl every five to ten minutes, and a deep coal bed will cook a small chicken in 45 minutes to an hour. While the roast won’t pick up much smoke, it inevitably displays a mellow, fire-touched warmth. After I cut it down, I’ll sometimes finish the bird directly over the coals for a couple minutes, just to add a touch of smoke and char.

Finally, the easiest way to use the fireplace is to cook directly in the coals. This is as simple as it sounds. Dense vegetables, such as eggplants, potatoes, and onions can simply be nestled among the hot coals and left. After a bit of time, use tongs to extract them, peel off the burnt outer layers and enjoy the moist, smoky interior. Likewise, any vegetable can be wrapped in foil and inserted into the fire.

The complexity and savoriness of fireplace food make it exceptionally inviting to wine. I love to match those qualities with savory, earthy bottles often—but not exclusively—my favorites are wines from the Old World, where rustic fireplace cooking is still common. For instance, a recent meal of grilled, herb-marinated pork chops, slow roasted over cherrywood was a perfect complement to two 2017s: the punchy and cherry-scented Gattinara from all-word producer Roberto Conterno’s Nervi in Italy’s northern Piedmont; and a satiny smooth Burgundy— the woodsy Gevrey-Chambertin “Champ Franc” from La Combe Grisard.

A string-turned, fire-roasted chicken goes equally well with whites or reds. I salted my most recent bird, leaving it for two days in the refrigerator, and then stuffed its cavity with fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, and half a lemon before hanging it. As it cooked, we popped a lively white Burgundy—the 2018 Vézelay Champs Cervin—from one of my favorite new producers, the young, ambitious, and fearless Camille Thiriet. Halfway through the chicken, we needed a new wine and turned to red—my favorite with fire-roasted chicken, Syrah. In this case, we drank a classic from the Northern Rhone, Alain Graillot’s Crozes-Hermitage, peppery and visceral but with a rich core of purple fruit.

But so many wines could have worked. The main point is don’t let winter get you down and don’t let your fireplace go unused. Consider getting out of the kitchen to cook your next meal.