It all started when the gas line on my hand-me-down barbecue rotted out. As crisis leads to creative solutions, the guts of the aging barbecue were ripped out and tossed aside unceremoniously. In its place, charcoal briquettes and way too much lighter fluid, and the patient lived to sear another steak.
This began the humble beginnings of my love affair with cooking over live fire, leading to incredibly delicious results: salt, simplicity and smoke.
Flash-forward 20 years and I’ll take every opportunity I get to cook over an open flame, or more specifically smouldering coals. Those early days, I was happy to cook on my charcoal DIY rig, spending extra time outside with my sous chef, “cold beer.” I waited for the coals to reach perfection, learning the ways smoke impacts flavour.
Over time, it has evolved into so much more, like understanding what it takes to manage the fuel, which is quite a challenge compared to flipping a switch or setting an oven temperature. This lesson was hard learned during my time working at a local wood-fired bakery, City Cafe. My role was a simple one, make the bagels in the morning, make pizzas for lunch. We sold a shit load of bagels and the temperature had to be just right — too low and they wouldn’t cook through in time and came out looking pale and flacid, too high and they burned on the outside while staying raw inside.
Once perfect temperature was achieved, it was a labour of love to keep it on target, tossing in a few extra logs was never an option to recoup temp as it would flare up and blacken the goods. I went to City Cafe expecting to learn the secrets behind their amazing products, and while I certainly did, the real takeaway was falling in love with live-fire cooking and the challenges of keeping the oven happy. I learned how to maintain a medium high for bagels and hot as hell’s 7th circle for pizza, all powered by wood. How cool is that?
Wood, smoke and char became part of my repertoire of flavours ever since. I’ve made smokers out of filing cabinets, wine barrels, even a wet cardboard box. I’ve roasted whole pumpkins, cooked a seven course vegan feast in a field, whole goats, strung chickens and boy scout-style bannock all over fire and under the great blue sky. Few things make my culinary heart sing louder than that!
Two summers ago, my friend and I set off into the forest at his cottage armed with a chainsaw, a left-handed cigarette and two tall boys each. Before the second beers were finished we had cut down three young maple trees, constructed them into a tripod and rigged up a grill on a pulley system.
A leg of lamb and potatoes were on the grill before we needed further refreshments. Six hours of campfire smoke later, we feasted on the fruits of not only our culinary skills, but our bush craft skills. Using what was at hand, we truly created a special meal and an unforgettable experience.
Get outside this summer and get yourself some of that experience. Trust me, it’s worth the effort and makes for an incredible edible memory.
Check out the online version of this story for a recipe for one of my favourite dishes to cook for a group: coal roasted “full monty” rib steak. It’s an incredible dish and a real showstopper.
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.
Coal Roasted “Full Monty” Rib Steak
This recipe is simple but takes serious guts and some confidence. When it’s all said and done, you will “wow” yourself and your friends as you slice into the blackened outside to reveal the perfect medium rare you want a steak like this to be. You can substitute another cut of beef for this if you like, but it is important it’s thick, has a good amount of fat and preferably is on the bone. Don’t try and do this with several smaller steaks — it wont work the same and you may lose some to the fire.
2lb Full Monty Rib Steak — go see Matt at the Bauer Butcher, he will know what that means and take good care of you.
5 cloves garlic
12 dried whole arbol chilis
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
Fresh herbs, whatever you have at your disposal
Well established fire full of coals
- Start a fire. Use any wood you like to start, but when you get into coal production, try and stick to a single origin wood and hardwood at that. Apple is my favourite, and a real workhorse; maple works too and is plenty full around these parts. It’s not overly important to work with one of these wood varieties, but definitely don’t use rotten or mouldy campfire wood, and avoid soft wood as it just doesn’t produce the coals we need for this.
- Set the steaks out at room temperature. Keep it covered to keep the flies off. We need it to warm up a bit so let it sit out for about 90 minutes.
- Our coals are set, fire is tame, steak is tempered. Let’s crust that baby in sea salt and set it on fire! Fully crust it in salt. Some will fall off in the fire and, honestly, it’s a big piece of meat that really wants that salt. Once its properly salted, literally set it in the fire on the coals. There shouldn’t be many flames at this point, so flare ups and hand burns shouldn’t happen too much. This is where your confidence and patience need to prevail, as much as you may think you’re burning the steak beyond reprieve — you’re not. It’s a big, thick piece of meat; as much charr we will impart on the outside will be beautifully balanced but the untouched meat on the inside. We need to keep that steak on the coals for about 12 minutes total or until its sufficiently blackened all over, keep it moving from time to time to avoid flare ups. Flare ups will light the fat on the steak on fire and produce a seriously bitter and nasty flavour. Direct contact with the coals on the other hand will give us lovely smoke flavour and an amazing sear on the steak itself. After it’s properly charred, pull it aside and let it sit at medium high heat either on a grill over the fire or on rock or even in a cast iron pan, keep it cooking another 10-15 minutes until medium rare and set aside to rest.
- Resting is super important, especially with a big steak like this, don’t rush it. Give it a solid 10-15 minutes. This allows the juices in the meat which or bouncing around like crazy due to the heat to settle down a bit and return to the meat — we want this, big time. A steak that isn’t properly rested will have juices running out of it the second it’s cut. Those juices are money, let them settle back in. A properly rested steak is simple, set it down on rack or on top of a couple forks so the bottom doesn’t steam itself against the board, and wait.
- Make the sauce. This is super easy — smash the garlic cloves into pieces with the back of a pan and set aside with the dried chilis. Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the smashed garlic and chilis and cook until the garlic begins to brown. Immediately remove from heat and toss in the fresh herbs and some more sea salt, this should be served and prepared in front of your guests as the sounds and aromas that come off are all part of the experience.
- Carve and enjoy. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for, carve into the blackened steak and reveal the brilliant and pure meat underneath the surface. Top the sliced steak with the oil while it’s still hot and fragrant — and enjoy!