Last Saturday in the hills above Healdsburg, after winding around on wet rural roads, I arrived with a large group of friends in a well appointed kitchen in the middle of a vineyard. The house was backed by vine covered trellises and terraces, with views over bright green rows of grape vines, lichen cloaked oak trees, board and batten barns and curving country roads. A dog was barking distantly, a little rain patter scattered over the stone. Even though it was raining outside, the kitchen glowed – the sun was not too far behind the clouds. Twelve of us stepped into that warm room on the verge of busy-ness. We had been invited to participate in a wood fired oven cooking class.
Everything stood ready. Red and yellow peppers bright on a foil wrapped half sheet pan. An oval platter of wild mushrooms in pale creamy and soft brown clusters. Burnished, silky caramelized onions on a round white plate. A soft pungent heap of Point Reyes blue in a bowl. And slowly scraping around in a box somewhere, a dozen lobsters. A mesh bag of tiny clams. Two small chickens. Resting in a proofing box, quietly rising, plump yeasty rounds of pizza dough. Then suddenly, sleeves rolled up. Aprons tied. This is the very best kind of work. I can completely lose myself in pungent olive oil, pillowy dough, the forest floor scent of a mushroom. And maybe something a little out of the ordinary, something I have never tried before. There’s where the fun is.
My friend Lee said: oh my god that was the best foodie day ever! – and he was right. It was the best foodie day ever. One of the best days ever. We had been invited to attend a wood fire oven class taught by Andrea Mugnaini, a wood fire oven importer and teacher. (Thank you Diana!!!) Every person in the group was passionate, curious, funny and kind. There was this big happy focused energy. I thought we might learn how to light the fire and make a pizza. We only had three hours. Maybe we could roast a chicken. I would have been completely happy to have learned just that. We did learn those things but we also learned a lot more. Three hours magically turned into five.
We roasted peppers, made a dozen pizzas, 2 chickens under a brick, a dozen lobsters and clam bake and an apple, blueberry crisp. All in the pizza oven. We learned how to control the fire , using visual cues to see how hot the oven is. I am lucky enough to have access to a wood fired oven and I know I will really use all the recipes and methods I learned that day. Andrea also taught us how to bone a whole chicken – not by cutting it up in pieces. We kept the body whole, just removing the bones. I have wanted to learn how to do this for years! We learned to kill a lobster with a big sharp knife. I got the feeling that the method of dumping them into a pot of boiling water is for chumps. On Saturday I found out what I was really up for, which, as it turns out, is not just following directions and making dinner, something that up until now I have always been quite happy to do.
I found out I can side-step squeamishness and cut open a bird with scissors and scrape away the flesh from the bone, and do it neatly, undeterred by it’s prone raw body. Now I don’t have to wonder anymore if I can bone a bird by myself – I did it! I can wield a large sharp knife and cleave through the head of a lobster, quickly dividing it in half, and watch as rigor mortis sets in, then promptly dispatch 3 more. After we removed the bones from the chicken, Janis taught us how to roast the back bone, ribs, and legs with salt and pepper and olive oil to make a brown stock. (I hope you’ve made your own stock – You’re missing out if you haven’t tried it. It sounds counterintuitive, but life is WAY too short to eat stock from a box.)
Maybe it’s nuts to attach so much importance to these obscure food prep skills, and it is hard to describe why it felt so important to try to master them. And even more important to go home and practice so I don’t forget how. I have two plump chickens waiting for me in my fridge.
Normally, I don’t want to write about specialized equipment or esoteric ingredients at Notes On Dinner. I like to write about food that is accessible to most families, that adults will find interesting and delicious and that will gently challenge children to open up to other textures and tastes than most are exposed to. I don’t expect that most people who read this will have access to a pizza oven. What I do hope is that in the kitchen you can find out what interests you, find a challenge for yourself, even if it is a really small challenge. Cook without any prepared foods for a week! Cook all Indian food for dinner for a week. Roast a pork shoulder and make 5 meals out of it. Eat vegetarian every Monday. It’s these kinds of challenges that make cooking so consuming (yes, really!) for me. I think that’s why, in the kitchen, I am never ever bored.