Cookbook Review - Around the Fire - Ox Restaurant

Around the Fire  by Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton is a stellar cookbook that features adaptations of recipes from the author’s restaurant, travels and experiences.  The cookbook is written by the Chefs and Owners of Ox restaurant in Portland, OR.  This restaurant is famous for the grilled foods and Argentinean influences.  This cookbook features both but I would not call it an Argentinean food cookbook.  It is ultimately a book about making the fire the centerpiece of the meal and surrounding it with a variety of foods prepared in many different ways.

The cookbook has over 80 recipes not including the eight pages of basic recipes in the back of the book.  The recipes are split up in sections titled Beginnings, From the Grill, From the Garden and Sweets and Drinks.  The largest number of recipes are from the grilling section which I feel is the heart of this book.

The recipes range from simple grilled skirt steak to a complex foie gras terrine.  Each recipe contains a short narrative (1-3 paragraphs) describing the author’s inspiration, thoughts and tips for the dish.  I found these short narratives extremely helpful because they would often describe the flavor profile of the dish and pairing suggestions.  They were also helpful in that they sometimes provided ideas for ingredient substitutions.

This book feels like a cookbook for very skilled home cooks.  It is much less complex than a restaurant cookbook like French Laundry but more complex than any Jamie Oliver type book.  Overall I found that many of the recipes themselves appear to be much more complex than they are, especially those for the grilled foods.  The ingredient lists can be long but many of the items are pantry items for the home cook who likes to cook at a slightly higher level than most.  The book does feature many cuts and types of meat that even a more advanced home cook may have trouble finding including squab, turkey butts, wild halibut on the bone, and beef marrow bones.  I’m sure I could track these down or order them from a local butcher but I’d probably input paying a pretty penny.  The upside is that most of the recipes do not call for these expensive cuts.

The strength of this book is that it provides a unique viewpoint on home grilling.  Most cookbooks feature a handful of recipes for the grill and grilling cookbooks are often times just preparing a regular recipe on the grill instead of the stove.  This book uses the grill and the fire as part of the recipe.  The unique flavor contributed by the wood, flame and char is balanced and taken into account.  The authors provide grilling recipes for many vegetable and seafood dishes which are usually the weakest links of any grilling cookbook.

The authors provide a fairly complete background and training on cooking over fire from selecting wood and starting the fire to managing the heat and preparing food for cooking on the grill.  In their restaurant the couple utilize a large scale commercial grill that has some features that most home cooks do not.  This was not lost on the authors as they provide a recipe for recouping some of the flavor lost by home cooks by using what they call “Black Gold”.

This book is very well balanced between grilled foods and non grilled foods which is usually a weakness of grilling focused books.  When cooking at home I utilized a 22” Weber Grill and find it difficult to prepare an entire meal on the grill and have it done at the same time.  The fire also contributes so much character to each dish that the flavor can become monotonous when a whole meal is prepared in the same fashion.  The book allows the reader to choose what to grill and what to make ahead, it provides ideas for dishes that are light and refreshing as well as rich and decadent.  One of the few weaknesses of this cookbook is that there are more closeups of finished dishes than I normally like.  This is more of a personal quibble than an actual critique.

Today I was able to work three recipes into my meal plan, the Chimichurri, the Grilled Skirt Steak and the Roasted Cauliflower.  I chose the skirt steak and chimichurri because these are things we make every couple of weeks and the cauliflower because I felt that the flavor combinations were interesting.  The chimichurri was simple to make, especially since we grow parsley and oregano year round in our garden.  Their take on the sauce is different than my norm, with onions rather than shallots and less garlic.  I found their sauce bright and delicious, well balanced with the vinegar and the garlic was not overpowering as mine often is.  

The skirt steak was a relatively straightforward recipe to make with a couple differences from my usual recipe.  It included an onion marinade which ends up looking like thick cream and the meat is finished with smoked sea salt (which I found at TJ Maxx for $3).  I marinated the meat for a little less than 24 hours and popped it on the grill, followed the instruction closely, all the way down to the cutting of the meat.  I have to say that the marinade was the difference maker, it added a deep complexity to the dish and it wasn’t too oniony.  The smoked salt was subtle after topping with the chimichurri and could probably be skipped.  I could taste it without the sauce but I’m somewhat addicted to chimichurri.

The last recipe I tried was the roasted cauliflower with spicy golden raisin vinaigrette, mint and sesame seeds.  This dish sounded like something that wouldn’t taste good but the included photo made it look delicious.  This recipe was very simple, make a vinaigrette in one pot and roast the cauliflower on a baking sheet.  The finished dish looked better than the one pictured in the book and tasted great.  The roasted vegetable was taken to another level by the umami filled vinaigrette.  The spiciness was tamed by the fresh mint and I could eat the golden raising with the liquid portion of the sauce by the bowlful.  My wife was actually scared of the golden raisins and ended up craving more.

Overall I really have enjoyed reading this cookbook, it is definitely on the more advanced end of the grilling book spectrum but is worth it.  The idea of being able to plan a meal around the grill without using all grilled foods is a great philosophy and one that makes sense.  I would recommend this book to friends that enjoy cookbooks by chefs, for home cooks that think they’re chefs, advanced grill masters and those that like ideas and inspiration to try new things.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


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