Backyard chef warms up to roasting food on wood planks

March 31, 2002|By Rob Kasper

It is not often that I try to imitate an executive chef. But when the basic culinary skill required to cook like a pro is simply burning wood, then slap a toque on my head and call me "Chefy."

So it was the other night that I practiced the ancient art of "oak-plank roasting," cooking chicken breasts and a salmon fillet on slabs of smoldering wood. Until recently, I thought burning hunks of wood was simply a form of weekend recreation, not a culinary technique. Then I visited Tim Mullen, executive chef of Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

Mullen told me that for the past month he and his fellow chef Darren Anklam have been cooking scallops, shrimp, salmon, chicken breasts and beef on pieces of oak. They got the idea, and the oak planks, from Fetzer Vineyards. The planks, dense rectangles about the size and thickness of a hardback novel, come from a supply of wood the California winemakers used to make wine barrels. The winery ships planks to a number of restaurants around the United States.

John Ash, chef at Fetzer's California headquarters, resurrected the practice of roasting food on oak planks, a custom that Ash said originated with Native American tribes in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Mullen explained that the idea is for the plank of wood to serve as a pan. Planks can either be used in an oven, Mullen said, or on the grate of a barbecue grill. The oak plank does not, repeat not, become fuel for the fire.

My enthusiasm for this cooking technique increased after I tasted examples of burned-wood fare being served at Windows, the hotel's restaurant. The oak-roasted scallops and the fillet of salmon were outstanding, sweet, yet carrying a distinct wood flavor. The roasted chicken was also superb. The seared beef tournedos, while flavorful, did show off the fact they had spent some intimate, searing moments with oak.

These foods were served on plates, not planks. Initially the restaurant staff considered carrying the food to the table on the sizzling piece of wood. But according to Robert Mallak, the hotel's director of food and beverage, this idea was nixed for a couple of reasons. First the hot plank might burn the customer, or the tablecloth. Secondly, a charred oak plank is not always a pretty sight.

Later I tried this cooking technique out in my back yard, using a couple of oak planks Mullen gave me.

The results were delicious. Chicken breasts, rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper, came off the wood with a handsome brown tone. They were juicy and, instead of the usual bland chicken breast taste, had an appealing, nutty flavor.

The salmon was outstanding; the oak flavor permeated the flesh, giving, a rich, woodsy flavor to a basic slab of supermarket fish.

There was, however, one problem associated with my initial attempt at food on oak planks. The planks caught on fire.

Before putting the planks on the grate above my charcoal fire, I had rubbed the wood with olive oil. This, it turned out, was the recommended procedure to use if the planks were going to be used in an oven.

When you put them on a grill, you are supposed to soak them in water, not rub them in oil.

The result of my miscue was a spectacular, fiery finish to meal preparation. The salmon sizzled, flames licked the edges of the planks, and dense, fragrant smoke temporarily blinded me. Thanks to long tongs and a clearing wind, supper got to the table in fine shape.

One drawback to setting your oak planks on fire is that it cuts down on their life expectancy. Apparently, if you treat your oak planks kindly and sand them down after every use, they can cook 20 or so meals for you.

But if you burn them, then these roasting devices once used by Native Americans crumble and become basic backyard charcoal.

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