Long before he became a celebrity, Michael Chiarello loved cooking over fire. As a boy—with the Emmy-winning TV shows, the family winery, and two restaurants (Bottega, in the Napa Valley, and San Francisco’s Coqueta) still ahead of him—he helped his Italian grandparents light the woodstove every morning at their ranch near Mt. Shasta, California. “It wasn’t just starting a fire; it was a ritual,” he says. “It’s where I learned to cook.”
As he grew older, he cooked in a woodburning oven outside too, with his nonna, aunts, and mother. A fire’s need to be fed and stoked appealed to him: “There’s a relationship in tending it,” he says. And it could be easy to create. “When my uncle would go mushroom hunting with us, he’d bring four bricks and a grate, set up a firepit, and grill the mushrooms.” In Chiarello’s book, Live Fire (Chronicle Books), and here with us, he drew on those memories to spin a whole menu from a homemade firepit.
Photo by Thomas J. Story
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Photo by Thomas J. Story
Easy DIY firepit
Build the pit. “You can cook anything on this,” says Chiarello. On bare ground, sand, or concrete (“not grass,” warns Chiarello, since it may scorch), spread a double layer of heavy-duty foil to extend a foot beyond a cooking grate (any size). Stack 3 layers of bricks in a rectangle, leaving a couple out of the top layer on opposite sides to encourage airflow. (For a standard 21-in. round Weber grate, build it 2 bricks by 3 bricks.) Fill pit with about an inch of sand.
Light the fire. Put tinder (tiny twigs) or several balled-up sheets of newspaper in the center, then lean kindling against them to make a tipi. Lean larger kindling against it, then 5-6 small logs. Light the fire. “The tipi lets every bit of flame go up past 3 or 4 logs,” says Chiarello, so the fire starts fast. Once the logs have caught, add several larger logs to the perimeter, and let it all burn down to ashy chunks with low flames (1 1/2 to 2 hours). Because there’s less smoke and char than cooking over flame, Chiarello says, “it make your food taste much cleaner.”
Start cooking. Keep another log burning at the back of the pit. When it’s ashy chunks, rake it into the main fire to maintain heat.
The first thing to go on the fire: slices of good prosciutto, since they can tolerate the slightly higher heat of the fresh cooking fire, and because they make a great little appetizer. Chiarello grilled up a stack of them as he prepared the next course. They’re as easy as they look: just grill until crisp on both sides.
Prosciutto grilling tip: Watch Michael demonstrate this easy recipe in our video.
Once the prosciutto are crisping, Chiarello starts grilling the piadina, a kind of flatbread from Emilia-Romagna specialty. He describes it as “crisp warm dough with a highly flavored sauce and a cool salad.” To make it on a gas grill, set a pizza stone on the cooking grate over high heat for at least 20 minutes. No matter your method, says Chiarello, “don’t wait for your guests to sit down. You gotta make ’em and eat ’em.” As he’s grilling and topping the piadine, he has a fresh log or two burning at the back of the pit, so it will be ready to boost the fire for the main course: chicken under a brick.
This dough produces some of the lightest, tastiest pizza we’ve had. Roll or stretch these balls thinly to make pizza and a little thicker for piadine (a type of flatbread from Emilia-Romagna). For foccaccia, lightly pat the dough into a flat rectangle and then dimple it with your fingertips.
When the chicken is ready, lift it from the hot grill to a cutting board and let it rest. Use the same cast-iron skillet from weighting the chicken to cook the potatoes. “Smashing the potatoes gives you more surface to caramelize,” says Chiarello. “And you can spread the pesto evenly, so you get seasoning in every bite.”
Chiarello uses the the last heat of his fire to roast whole heads of garlic wrapped in foil. He puts the soft, smoky cloves in salads, smears them over steaks, and spreads them with oil over toasted bread. Eggplant, onions, even winter squashes can be ash-roasted too. They don’t need to be foil-wrapped; just peel off the charred outer skin and use the sweet, soft interior.