Skinny Girls Roadshow LIVE from Seattle — Mallmann in the Northwest

My pal, Donnie, sent his son Ben over one morning with a cookbook by Francis Mallmann.

“My dad wants you to make this,” he said, opening the thick volume to a bookmarked page.

Francis Mallmann is an Argentine chef from Patagonia who likes to cook over open fire. The recipe was for a grilled cow. In the ingredients section, it called for “One cow, butterflied.” I imagined walking to the meat counter at the Whole Foods and asking for a cow.

Salmon at Pike's Place Market in Seattle

Salmon at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle

Prior to our Labor Day weekend visit to Seattle to see our friends, the Pfaffs, I had suggested to host Bob that we might do an open-fire Mallmann dinner, which wouldn’t be practical at home in Topanga Canyon, where I might burn the better part of drought-stricken Southern California to the ground.

First, however, there would be shopping — which included a stop at famous Pike’s Place Market for salmon, halibut, wild mushrooms and other provisions — for a first dinner with my other Seattle-based pal, Bill, whom I’ve been trying to get together for a decade, and his lovely wife Aimie.

Halibut cheeks with two kinds of eggplant

Halibut cheeks with two kinds of eggplant

We purchased enough food for a week, which we would make a valiant attempt to cook and eat in the span of three nights. A slab of local salmon was cured in sugar and salt and wrapped in dill for a gravlax, and then I set about to cooking. For Bill, a pescetarian, and Aimie, I made halibut cheeks served on a tempura square of eggplant and an eggplant puree, followed by tagliatelle with fresh lobster mushrooms. Dessert was a puff pastry with egg custard and fresh Northwest berries. Some candied kumquats I’d made earlier in the day in anticipation of topping off the halibut with a sweet-tart kick sat forlorn in their bowl where they’d been forgotten.

The next day, despite awaking to a pouring rain and the no-showing of the wood delivery, we set about our Mallmann open fire dinner. We secured firewood elsewhere, the sky cleared up, and by early afternoon we were out back by the fire pit with glasses of wine and high hopes.

Izzy by the fire

Izzy by the fire, risotto-stuffed morels on the grill

For the fire, we had purchased 3-inch-thick dry aged ribeye steaks, an octopus, a pound of red Argentine prawns, a butternut squash, morel mushrooms and a bunch of beets. Our guests this evening would be the Pfaffs’ neighbors, a former Seattle Seahawks lineman named Lofa, his wife Rachel and their two boys. The only caveat was that it was opening day for college football, and Lofa — also a former USC lineman — would need to watch the SC vs. Alabama game. That sounded like perfectly reasonable entertainment to accompany 6 lbs. of grilled steak.

I’ve cooked over fire before, but mostly dedicated to the slow smoking of a pork shoulder or beef brisket. The challenge to cooking over a hot open fire is managing the temperature. The fire burns really hot, meaning food can char quickly or, if placed too far from the flame, languish in a state of irresolute tepidness.

Octopus and ribeye fresh from the fire

Octopus and ribeye fresh from the fire

I had watched Mallmann on an episode of the extraordinary Netflix series, “Chef’s Table,” placing root vegetables right in the hot coals. I followed suit, and watched a carrot quickly shrivel into a curled black cinder. But before long I had the hang of it, beets and carrots placed around the perimeter of the coals, the butternut squash dropped right into the center.

Bob and I tended the fire, drinking wine and talking, moving food around, taking things off the flame and replacing them with other things.

The steak turned out perfectly, a rich golden brown char on the outside, a perfect medium rare within, topped with garlic parsley butter. The prawns were equally simple and delicious, the octopus slightly overcooked and chewy, missing the once again forgotten candied kumquats I had intended to top it with. A grilled bread salad with arugula and fire-roasted carrots and beets added a delicious freshness to the proceedings. But perhaps the best thing was the butternut squash, almost mistaken for a burned-out log and left amidst the cinders — split open, scooped from its lava-black shell and dressed simply with butter. Mallmann would’ve been proud.

Lofa and his steak

Lofa and his steak

USC lost 52-6. Somehow still cheerful, Lofa set back out into the night. “That was the best dinner I ever had,” he said as he gave me a big Samoan hug. While we were saying our goodbyes, Summer, the Pfaff’s boxer, helped herself to roughly $60 worth of ribeye still on the table. Perhaps the most expensive dog dinner ever.

And on the third day, there would be more still — more beer, more wine, more gravlax, and for dinner… Kobe beef, local clams and mussels cooked with prosciutto and the candied kumquats I had overlooked the first two nights finally getting their due, and Dungeness crab with heirloom tomatoes on black spaghetti.

And on the fourth day, we would go home. And rest.

*    *    *

Halibut cheeks with tempura and pureed eggplants
serves 4

4 halibut cheeks, 3-4 oz. each
1/2 cup flour
1 tbsp. butter
1 medium eggplant, peeled
1 egg
6 oz. flour
6 oz. ice water
1 cup canola oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tbsp.
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp. cumin
12 fronds celery tops
1 tbsp. seasoned rice wine vinegar
(or regular rice wine vinegar mixed with 1 tsp. sugar)
salt and pepper

Cut strips off the sides of the peeled eggplant to create a large eggplant “block”, roughly square on two sides, rectangular on four. Save strips.

Cut the block into four squares, about 1 to 1.5 inches thick. Season liberally with salt, and set aside on a plate for about 1-2 hours. As eggplant released water, dab with paper towels.

Preheat oven to 170.

In a small saucepan, place eggplant strips and garlic with 1 cup water, bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove eggplant and garlic to a blender with 1/4 cup of the water and 1/4 cup olive oil, add cumin and puree. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mix together 6 oz. flour, egg and ice water until smooth but still lumpy. Heat canola or vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a shallow saucepan. Dip each slice of eggplant in the batter, and fry until crispy and golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove with tongs to a paper towel to drain. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Then place on a rack in the warm oven.

Reheat pureed eggplant in a small saucepan over low heat.

Heat 1 tbsp. butter in a skillet. Toss halibut cheeks with 1/2 cup flour, then sauté for about 3-4 minutes per side, until golden. Remove from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss together celery fronds with 1 tbsp. olive oil and 1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar.

Compose your plates: Place a large tablespoon or two of the eggplant puree in the center of the plate. Top with an eggplant tempura, and then a halibut cheek. Add a frond of celery salad artfully on three sides of the puree and serve.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Conor Bofin
    Sep 05, 2016 @ 19:30:22

    Love the halibut cheeks. Love them!


  2. Michelle
    Sep 05, 2016 @ 22:48:51

    Isn’t that a great series? When you get around to doing a Magnus Nilsson meal, count me in. 🙂


  3. Bobby Mahaffey
    Sep 06, 2016 @ 04:40:02

    I agree with Lofa – best dinner ever! And I agree with you, Irish, our inspiration from Patagonia would’ve been proud. We’ll get around to those peaches and Amaretto next trip.


  4. Mon Abri Farm
    Sep 06, 2016 @ 19:01:50

    Now I want to grill octopus. Everything looked and sounded amazing though – nice job!


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