NEW YORK For archeologist and food historian Paula Marcoux, the business of cooking begins as it did almost two million years ago: with a fire and a stick.
From fish and meat to breads and vegetables, the 100-odd recipes in Marcoux's first book, "Cooking with Fire," serve as a how-to guide to often ancient and sometimes forgotten culinary techniques.
"The flavors are just so much better," said Marcoux, who instructs readers in the use of sticks, spits, skewers and grills as well as masonry ovens and coal beds.
"Even if it seems you're just boiling something, there's a lot more that enters into the food when you're cooking with fire," she said.
The 53-year-old, who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts, spoke about reclaiming the bygone pleasures of gathering around the hearth, whether it is to bake bread in a wood-fired oven, slow roast a pork loin on a homemade spit, or toast cheese in an urban fireplace.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: (Fire) is the basic element that cooked all our food until recently, and it's gone away so quickly. I'm hoping to give people confidence to try things out.
Q: Where do the recipes come from?
A: They’re accumulated from all over the world, but really represent the people I’ve run up against and the flavors I like. Some are from friends and others I’ve made up. They are simply in the service of helping people try these techniques.
Q: Does food taste better when cooked over an open fire?
A: The flavors are so much better. And it’s celebratory, collaborative and more of an experience than a meal. You cannot help but bring in more people when you’re cooking with fire.
Q: How can city dwellers begin to cook with fire?
A: You must know somebody who has a fireplace and you need to cultivate that relationship. It’s really hard to go back and think of your fireplace as a decorative element of your home if you’re making a meal in it, even if it’s just an appetizer. Also some of these techniques can be done on a beach or in a park.
Q: What's easy for a beginner to try?
A: Put some kind of melting cheese on a long skewer and just toast it like a marshmallow over the coals until it starts to get nice and soft and gooey. Have a crusty slice of bread ready to catch the drip, and some condiments like pickles or chutney or a nice mustard. It’s like making fondue on your own little slice of bread.
Cream Scones (makes eight):
10 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 ½ ounces (5 tablespoons) lightly salted butter, cold
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk
½ cup cream
½ cup currants, or other dried fruit chopped to the size of currants
1. Set up a griddle arrangement and get a fire going. You may use something approximating a bakestone, but a 10-inch cast-iron griddle or even a frying pan works fine, with low heat under it. You can nestle a heavy pan into a bed of coals, provided the heat is dampened with plenty of ash.
2. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl or food processor. Cut or rub in the butter until the flour looks like meal. In a separate bowl, beat the egg and yolk together, then beat in the cream. Use a fork to lightly stir the egg mix into the flour mixture, tossing in the currants as you go. Scrape it up into a ball, but do not overwork.
3. Preheat your griddle.
4. Flour a work surface lightly and scrape the dough out onto it. Pat it lightly into an even cake about 8 to 9 inches in diameter. Use a bench knife or scraper to cut the scone into eight wedge-shaped pieces, and transfer them to the hot griddle. (If you hear any sizzling, situate the griddle in a cooler location or spread out the coals or diminish the blaze under it.) Bake for 10 to 15 minutes per side, peeking underneath to monitor and turn when lovely and brown. Let cool several minutes before serving.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and G Crosse)