Book Review: Seven Fires

Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way.  By Francis Mallmann with Peter Kaminsky. Artesian 2009.  Photography by Santiago Solo Monllor.

Francis Mallmann was born in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina.  He opened his first of many restaurants at the age of 19 and is now considered to be one of South America’s most respected chefs.  Mallmann calls his technique “Nuevo Andean,” which is based on the traditional wood-fire and cast-iron cooking methods that have been used by generations of gauchos and native Argentineans.  This book grew out of a TV series that ran on TV stations throughout South America called “Fires of the South.”  Mallmann currently operates three restaurants in South America.  The Times of London and USA Today have named his restaurants among the top ten places to eat in the world.

With 250 spectacular photographs spread throughout 288 pages, this book could have gone over the line and morphed from a cookbook into a coffee table book or promotional material from the “I Love the Pampas” Travel Board.  But the well-written recipes, sharing of personal stories and detail of instruction make this book a delight to both read and use.  The recipes are simple, without long, complex lists of hard-to-find specialty ingredients, have easy-to-understand instructions with comments and guideposts to check while you are cooking as well as an introduction or story for each recipe.  The photos are gorgeous and worth buying the book for.  Monllor’s photographs are so stunning that I was ready to log on to Expedia and check for air fares to Argentina.

The book opens with a primer detailing the seven types of fires referenced in the title.  Mallmann explains each of the seven grilling methods: parrilla (grill over coals), chapa (griddle over hot coals), infernillo (a two level fire with the food cooked in the center), hornos de barro (wood fired oven), rescoldo (food cooked directly in embers), calderos (using an iron kettle or cauldron) and, the style I most want to try, asador (cooking an entire animal on an iron spit). Each style has a very helpful description of what is involved, the size of the grill and necessary space, prep work required before the food hits the grill, time involved in performing the prep work and an indoor cooking alternative for those times you can’t cook outside.  One word of caution for when you try these recipes indoors:  these methods can generate tremendous amounts of smoke, so be sure to have an industrial-sized ventilation system

The chapters describe how to use each of these cooking methods to make appetizers, beef, lamb, pork, chicken fish, salads, breads and even deserts.  Each recipe has an introduction giving some background of the dish and the preparation method. The detailed photos of each dish assist a cook in both the preparation and serving of the dish.

Based on the title and photos, it would be easy to misinterpret this book as a collection of just grilled meat recipes, but the non-beef recipes are plentiful and innovative.   Chupin of Salmon and Spring Vegetables is a full-bodied fish and vegetable stew that seems to be a cousin to chioppino or bouillabaisse, but without the tomato base.  In Flipped and Flapped Lamb, Mallmann artfully slices and pounds steaks cut from a leg of lamb, then seasons and quickly grills them.  Another unexpected type of dish is Beef and Potato Pie, which may sound like a traditional British Shepherd’s Pie, but the mixture of seasonings and vegetables makes this a different and uniquely South American specialty.  In the recipe for Dulce de Leche Panqueque, Mallmann creates a dazzling dessert combining a grilled crepe with store-bought dulce de leche (caramelized milk).

This book would be an excellent gift for an experienced grill master who is looking to expand his file of recipes away from the tired old grilled burgers or chicken.  Once you have mastered the basics of grilling then Seven Fires should definitely be at the top of your list when you are looking to expand your grilling library.

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