The “Summer Kitchen”

I’m a big fan of a certain television show wherein the host travels around the country interviewing people who cook on unusual, outdoor setups. It’s compelling for two reasons: first, it’s just nice to see folks standing around a fire and cooking a meal without a lot of fake time constraints or competitive judging. Second, almost every episode has some hyper-smug “classically trained chef” who thinks they invented outdoor cooking. I’m particularly drawn to the second part of this, where some knob in a crisp, white oxford shirt fawns over his technique of putting hot rocks in a wine barrel to steam an artichoke or something. It’s such a glorious perversion of the original concept, and misses the point so entirely that one can’t help but marvel.

So what is the point, then? What would compel someone to forego the myriad ovens, ranges, grills, smokers, burners, and hotpots already at their instant beck-and-call, with precise temperature control, fuel efficiency, and set-it-and-forget-it ease of use? Well, this:

This is a pork loin roast (we’ll get there), but it’s an entirely different food product. It’s not smoked, it’s not grilled, it’s not roasted. It’s something unique and alchemical; it’s the culmination of patience, intent, and attention. It is the climax of a sun-drenched afternoon in the yard, spent poking a woodfire and – as the kids say – touching grass.

The point then, I would argue, is the process itself, of which the end product is just one part. And how does that process start? Well, for me, it started with a shovel and a week of bad news.

I’ve talked previously about my go-to coping mechanisms, and after the last few years, I know when to lean-in. And so I found myself recently outdoors one spring morning, spade in hand, and ready to dig a hole.

Behold, my summer kitchen. As faithful readers will remember, we live on a mountain up here, and I figured it was probably a good idea to take advantage of the elevation changes, and dig into a hill:

Digging in the Maine soil is a nightmare in the best of circumstances. It’s rocky, full of hard-pack clay in places, and overrun with thick ropes of tree roots. But, it’s this or the news, so…

Progress was slow, but consistent, and I was able to put some of those famous Maine rocks to good use outlining the shape of the kitchen.

A quick aside: what’s up with “summer kitchen?” Well, growing up most of the houses in the area had some sort of outdoor cooking setup to use in the summer so as not to heat up the main house. Traditionally, the indoor kitchens ran on enormous cast-iron wood stoves that were designed to radiate heat through the house in the colder months, while also providing a place to cook. In the summer, then, they were a no-go. I took to calling this my summer kitchen because Mrs. 10Chickens had enough of my calling it the “meat hole.” But I digress.

With some additional rock work, the first night was time for a test-fire with some marshmallow toasting sticks. Pleasingly, the meat hole-err, summer kitchen, did not collapse or erupt, so I called it a success and started planning some additional rock work:

Again, because Maine, we had some big hunks of granite on hand, which I thought would make a good heat-sync, and deflector back toward the food. Speaking of which, it was time for a test-cook. As this is 10Chickens, I went that direction:

Brined, trussed, and seasoned with salt and pepper only. Any time I’m cooking on a new piece of equipment – be it an oven in a new house, or a rocky hole in the ground – I like to go with a chicken. I think it’s a great instrument to calibrate a new setup, and so… the canary goes into the coal mine:

For the test cook, I strung a steel cable between two fence posts, and used bailing wire to dangle the bird (and salsa fixin’s) over the heat. The fire is seasoned hardwood, which up here means mostly maple and oak, and it’s the same thing I burn in my woodstove in the winter to heat my house. That means I have a LOT of it around.

After playing with the height and the fire a bit, things really started to rock and roll:

Somewhere around here, it hit me. The sound of the breeze on the mountain, and of chicken juices quietly sizzling on a fire. The perfume of fresh cut grass and wood smoke. A slight heat in the skin from a day in the sun. THIS was the point.

And then there’s this. Rotated a few times and moved around based on what the fire was doing. Relaxed engagement. Bliss.

From here, it was off to the races. We’ve fired up the summer kitchen every weekend since, modifying and expanding each time. There was the leg of lamb:

That pork roast we mentioned up top, along with a hunk of chuck as an experiment:

The baked beans:

And the list goes on, as do the upgrades. With Fathers’ Day upon us, the family chipped in with some fancy accessories and a little more hard (rock) work:

And just like that, with a shovel, some rocks and sticks, and a couple hunks of meat, we have a harbor for the soul. And that, Chef Smug, is the point.

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