Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Tournebroche, I Never Leave Home Without It

Fire is primal and almost everyone in love with cooking over a wood fire has had a primal moment. Mine was this: lamb revolving slowly on a spit over burning wood in the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse. That was back in 1988. The look, the smell, the anticipation of the taste, but above all the simplicity of the scene took me to a place I never wanted to leave—a place where something is always turning slowly on a spit.

Years later in 2001 at Chez Panisse’s 30th anniversary, Alice Waters set up a tripod and suspended a giant copper cauldron from it to cook fish bisque over a wood fire. That was about the best soup I have ever had. Was it the smoke, the scene, the person stationed there whose sole job was to stir the pot that made it so wonderful? It was all of these plus the visual anticipation of a meal prepared so memorably.

Over the years, I’ve collected equipment for cooking over an open fire. One of my most cherished tools is my Tournebrouche by Le Capucin from France. The French have made these nifty clockwork spits for well over a hundred years. The mechanism could not be simpler: you wind the clockwork handle which turns the spit; when it winds down a charming little bell rings and you wind it up again. The Tournebroche was probably only meant for the fireplace which is how I usually use it, but I took it to upstate New York this summer and decided to try it outside. I built a fire and made spit roasted pork shoulder for pork burritos.

The 10-pound pork shoulder came from Fleisher’s, the great butcher in Kingston, New York. They were careful to leave an inch of fat on it so that it basted as it turned. I wrapped the meat in herbs from the garden and did nothing else besides rubbing it with salt, pepper and olive oil. I cranked up the Tournebrouche and the whole magical ritual began.

I cooked the pork shoulder for three hours until the crust turned beautiful dark amber. The smell was intoxicating. But don’t get me wrong; you do have to work during the cooking. You have to tend to the fire constantly moving embers and adding wood to keep an even heat under the meat. And you have to regulate the fire so it heats but does not burn.

When I took the meat off the spit my sense of accomplishment was off the charts. We had made black beans, rice, several salsas and homemade tortillas for the burritos but the pork barely made it to the table; everyone in the kitchen was picking at it. The flavor was unlike anything I remember before and the texture was as tender as if it had been slow cooked for eight hours. This lunch was one of the greatest successes of the summer and everyone who was lucky enough be there will carry the taste forever.

All I can say to friends who weren’t there is that my Tournebrouche travels well and I will gladly travel with it and do this meal or another like it again and again and again.


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