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Rediscovering the Pleasure of Fireplace Cooking


So this past summer, you mastered the art of grilling. Before you hung up your tongs for the season, you graduated from flipping burgers to expertly preparing a deboned leg of lamb, charred on the outside and rosy pink on the inside. 

Then, for Thanksgiving, you basked in tableside “oohs” and “ahhs” as guests applauded the succulence of the 15-pound turkey you personally smoked using a combination of charcoal and hickory chips. And now, if your home has a real wood-burning fireplace, it’s time to graduate to Mistress or Master of Fire Cooking, whether you’re preparing family treats or a full meal over wood flames at hearthside. Of course, if you live in a 19th-century Pennsylvania farmhouse, you may have already succumbed, unable to resist the culinary pull of an almost-walk-in fireplace with an extended hearth. 

Those of us of a certain age remember the 1970s as a time when all young couples wanted a house with a fireplace and accessorized with a brass bed, rya rugs and glass-top coffee tables. It was during this heady period that I became intrigued with the possibilities of fireplace entertaining, having experienced a country childhood where all our meals were prepared on a wood-burning stove. 

During this time, I subjected friends to sitting on cushions in front of the fire while we took turns melting sections of a large chunk of raclette cheese firmly situated on a small, clean, black shovel. Each would, in turn, scrape the melted raclette unto halves of small, boiled, red bliss potatoes, then adding a dollop of Dijon mustard. This would be accompanied by slices of sourdough bread, a few zesty gherkins and giardiniera (an Italian relish with pickled vegetables). Everything was washed down with a floral but crisp white Swiss wine. 

Alex Kaplan smiles when I tell him this story as he shows me around his Chadds Ford Fireside Shop on Route 202. “We used to have more fireside cooking instruments at our old store,” he says. “But today, everyone is interested in the automated fireplace.” That said, he points out items that would be helpful for those just getting used to cooking with fire: 

1. A multi-pronged fork that can be used to roast hot dogs or marshmallows. 

2. Wide fireplace shovels that can be used for making raclette or roasting chestnuts. 

3. A wire holder at the end of a long handle for making grilled cheese sandwiches. 

4. A cooking “crane”—a swiveling metal bar that can be mounted on a fireplace wall to swing out over the fire holding a cast iron pot to cook everything from soups to stews. 

5. Sturdy trivets that can be placed at the edge of the fireplace as a base for skillets or pots to cook meats and vegetables beside the flames. 

“Food cooked in a fireplace tastes marvelous, better than food cooked in most conventional ways today—the charcoal [grill] included,” says Suzanne Goldenson in the preface to her revised edition of The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America. “And with a few minor exceptions—large cakes, soufflés and other delicate confections—most anything one could desire to eat can be easily prepared in a fireplace.” 

Local chef and university instructor Brian Shaw gives this succinct advice on cooking temperatures: “Slow and low for stews and braising, hot as hell for searing, and indirect, controlled flame for a roast.” Indeed, most cooking is done beside, not over, a fire. 

Spitjack, an online fireplace supply firm founded by New England chef Bruce Frankel, offers a variety of specialty items for more advanced cuisine. A horizontal rotisserie on a base and tripod allows large pieces of meat to be cooked and rotated so each side can face the fire. An adjustable Tuscan grill can be set up easily above the flames for flat cooking. For large fireplaces, there are spits for roasting pigs or legs of lamb. (For more, visit www.spitjack.com). 

Of course, there are dangers to cooking inside that you won’t face on an outdoor grill. The main one is setting the house on fire. Cooking flames should be small anyway, and easily flammable articles, including loose clothing, should be kept well away. You’ll also need caution to avoid burns both from the fire and from superheated cookware. 

Obviously, the fireplace needs to be tested in advance to be sure the chimney draws well and doesn’t send smoke and cooking odors into the house. In fact, Michael Majewski, owner of Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, has a story to tell about an aromatic downside of fireplace cooking. 

“When I was in the Loire Valley, Prince Poniatowski of Clos Baudoin cooked an excellent duck for us [hearthside] to go with a 1954 Vouvray,” says Majewski. “The wine was bright and an excellent choice with the duck. My only complaint was that me, my colleagues and our luggage smelled like fireplace duck for the next three days.”


Fireplace Recipes 

Adapted from The Open-Hearth Cookbook 


Oyster Stew 

Serves 4-6 

1/4 cup of butter 

2 pints of oysters with their liquor 

1 quart of half & half 

1 tsp. of salt 

1 tsp. of paprika 

2 tbsp. of parsley, chopped 


This recipe requires a spider (a cast iron frying pan with three legs) or a deep pan on a cooking trivet. 

1. Melt the butter in the bottom of the spider and add the remaining ingredients, except parsley.

2. Heat until the oysters float and the cream is hot (do not overcook).

3. Taste and adjust seasoning. 

4. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle on parsley. 


Perfect Corn Bread 

Serves 6-8 

1/4 cup of butter 

1 cup of flour 

1/4 cup of sugar 

4 tsp. of baking powder 

3/4 tsp. of salt 

1 cup of yellow cornmeal 

1 cup of milk 

2 eggs 

Method This recipe requires a cast iron Dutch oven and a small pan on a trivet. 

1. Cut a piece of greased brown paper to fit the bottom of the Dutch oven. Heat the oven at fireside, then carefully fit the brown paper into the bottom.

2. Melt the butter in the small pan. 

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the cornmeal and whisk again, then add the melted butter. 

4. In a small bowl, mix together the milk and eggs and add to the dry ingredients. Mix just until everything is moistened. 

5. Pour mixture into the Dutch oven, add the lid, and bake about 20-25 minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean. 

6. When done, remove it from the fire, take off the lid. When cooled, invert on a cutting board and remove paper.