Cooking With Wood

22 Oct

Our electric oven caught on fire.

I didn’t even know this was possible.  But there I was, standing in the kitchen staring at a giant fireball in our oven which was emitting noises I have only ever heard in a sci-fi film.

I was preheating the oven so I could roast the half-dozen free oysters my fishmonger had given me (free oysters!) and then I was going to make clam chowder.  I quickly shut it off and watched the coil cool from white to blue to yellow to orange to red and then back to black.  It was obvious to me that we would not be using that stove to make dinner.  I looked around at all the perishable seafood sitting on the counter: Oysters, clams, scallops and a brick of frozen flounder.  I called to Isaac and we came to one conclusion; we still had to cook. So Isaac started a fire in the wood-burning stove and I pulled out my gorgeous, fire-engine red Emile Henry dutch oven.

With a small hesitation I set the pot down on the stove and added a few shards of bacon.  And then we waited.  Ever so faintly we heard a soft, sibilant sizzle, and then it turned into a roar.  It was working!  The bacon cooked!  Then I added leeks and garlic and potatoes and carrots and herbs, and it cooked, too! And then the clams opened and the stock came up to a boil! And then I added the frozen flounder and, well, yeah, things ground to a halt.

The flounder had been bought months ago on a weekend when we stayed in the city.  We meant to cook it, but it never happened, so into the freezer it went.  It eventually thawed in the soup, but the texture was horrid–tough, spongy, approximating a bike tire.  So I pulled it out, but oh boy did that flounder give it’s all.  The broth was delicious and fishy in just the right way.  It was a beautiful medley of oyster¹ and clam liqueur and flounder and herbs.  It was a chowder I will never be able to recreate, right down to using scalded milk made thick and luxurious with a dollop of leftover marscapone.  We will never have this chowder again.

On Saturday we went range shopping.  I think we found one, a Kenmore with two ovens and five(!) burners.  But, we still had the fire hazard at home, and so once again, we cooked with wood.  This time faux Pot au Feu² and mustardy sauerkraut over dumplings.

I know that some people would use a broken stove as an excuse to eat out, but I’m resisting. I’m actually enjoying this, it’s the most fun I’ve had cooking in months.  The rhythm and pace are slow and leisurely and it connects me to the past.  At one time, cooking with fire was the only option for getting dinner on the table.  It gives me lots of time to listen to baseball games on the radio, to warm my toes, to read, to knit.

But don’t get me wrong, I am happy that at some point soon we’ll be back to cooking with electricity³.  But, I think that at least once this winter, on an especially snowy day when the world becomes slow and quiet, I’ll reach for my clay pots and cast iron skillets again and bend over the fire to stir and taste.


¹ I did in fact end up roasting the oysters on top of the wood-burning stove. I tucked them in tight to a cast-iron skillet and then wrapped it in two layers of tin foil. I let them cook on top of the stove until I heard the hiss of liquid hitting hot iron.  Then I carefully cut open the foil, let them cool slightly and then we ate them in great greedy gulps.  It turns out that roasted oysters are awesome, and we saved the liqueur for adding to the chowder.

One note, if I were to do this again (and I really want to do this again!) I would recommend using an enameled cast-iron skillet.  The oyster liqueur that ended up on the bottom of the pan reacted a little strangely with the metal.

2 Faux Pot au Feu. Cook a few handfuls of flagolet beans that have been soaked for six hours in their soaking liquid. Add more water as needed until the beans are done. I read in The Country Cooking of France that to test flagolets for doneness, blow on them,  If their skins delicately burst, they’re done.

Brown two beef leg cuts in canola oil in a clay bean pot, marmite or dutch oven and remove.  Add a sliced onion and lots of garlic.  Add 12 quartered mushrooms, 1 bay leaf, a sprig of rosemary, a teaspoon of beef demi glace and a tablespoon of tomato paste.  Cook until brown and sticky.  Deglaze with vermouth.  Add a few small, peeled turnips, pale beets (chiogga or yellow) and two handfuls of peeled baby carrots.  Add the beef back in and cover with water.  Cover the pot and cook until tender, between one hour and two (depends on your beef).  Reduce the broth, season and add the beans.

Serve over gnocchi or spaetzle, barley or rice with sauerkraut braised in juniper berry and mustard-scented vermouth.  Pass very strong mustard and sour cream at the table.

³ You would think that as a “foodie” I would use the dead oven as an opportunity to switch to gas, but, honestly, I really like our current electric range. It’s so consistent and easy to clean.

P.S. If you’re a fan of Twitter and for some reason feel compelled to know more about what I eat for lunch or shop for at the Greenmarket, you can now follow me at


6 Responses to “Cooking With Wood”

  1. Anne October 22, 2009 at 9:07 am #

    Great story. And that chowder? I would dive in head first if I could, it looks and sounds so good. I know what you mean about forces coming together to make a once-in-a-lifetime recipe. I always think I can recreate something and I rarely, rarely can do it.

    I think the next time you use the wood burning stove, you should call Issac “Pa” for the full effect.

  2. Moody Food Reviews October 24, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    That’s too bad, but cooking with wood sounds delicious!

  3. Will B October 24, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    Welcome back to real cooking!!! I am hungry just looking at your terrific pictures! (and in the middle of a cold rain shower, too – so those dinners in the pot are even more tempting!)

  4. Toni October 24, 2009 at 6:44 pm #

    First of all, that chowder sounds beyond spectacular. I know about those kinds of meals — the glory of creating something that you know for sure you will never be able to duplicate. But it’s kinda like what Satchmo once said: Asking a jazz musician to repeat something is kind of like going up to a bird in a tree and saying “How’s that again?”

    As for the wood stove, my best friend in New Mexico cooked for years and years on a wood stove – the old fashioned kind that was made to cook on, with a firebox on one side and the oven on the other. I learned to love it! My husband and I used to use our wood stove – the kind made for heating the room – to put a pot of soup or stew on. It’s a little more difficult to control the temperature with one of those stoves, but the food tastes just as good!

  5. ann October 26, 2009 at 6:59 am #

    Anne — Omg, too funny! It has felt very “Little House”. Thank god a new stove arrives on Saturday and we go back to 20th Century again!

    Will — I know! I was really kicking myself for finally caving to going out on Saturday night. Would have been a perfect night for cooking over the fire.

    Toni — A firebox! What an awesome concept, because that was the hardest part of the cooking, finding colder spots, pulling things off to let them cool, etc, etc. It really was fun! I love cooking like making jazz. It’s really inspirational.

  6. Christina October 26, 2009 at 9:01 pm #

    What fun! How good you must have felt about yourself, being put in touch with a real skill like that. I know I would have thought, “I can cook like this? I rock.”

    One Thanksgiving when I was growing up, the electricity went out at our house, and we cooked a duck in the fireplace over a makeshift rotisserie my dad set up. None of us will ever forget it. The duck tasted amazing.

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