Cooking in Embers a la Michael Chiarello

Grilled potato salad with ember-roasted garlic dressing -- to put pizzazz in your Fourth of July.

Grilled potato salad with ember-roasted garlic dressing — to put pizzazz in your Fourth of July.

Men like to play with fire. And male chefs sure like cooking with it.

In fact, cooking in embers is all the rage now at places like Saison in San Francisco, and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena.

What’s the appeal? First, the primal aspect of it all. Second, the technique makes use of the residual heat that would otherwise just dissipate and go to waste. Third, it adds a gentle yet deep smoky quality.

I thought I’d give it a try, particularly when a free copy of the new “Michael Chiarello’s Live Fire” (Chronicle Books) landed in my mailbox for reviewing. Chiarello is a major fan of live fire. Every Northern California he’s worked in or owned — Tra Vigne, Bottega and Coqueta — all feature grills with live fire.


The book includes 125 recipes for cooking everything from seafood to pizza to desserts over a live fire. Of course, not many of us may have the space to cook a whole baby goat on a spitjack in our backyard, but there are plenty of recipes easily do-able even on a compact grill.

“Roasted Potato Salad”  is enlivened with a “Roasted Garlic Dressing”  that’s made by roasting whole heads of garlic in foil in the embers.  In the spent but still warm charcoal that my husband used to cook chickens in his Big Green Egg, we buried the foil-wrapped garlic for an hour. The key is to make sure your embers aren’t too hot or else you’ll end up with burnt, bitter garlic — which is never a good thing. The other key is to wait until your garlic has cooled down completely after removing the heads from the embers  before squeezing out the tender cloves. If you attempt that while the garlic is still hot, the incredibly pungent aroma may cause your eyes to water severely, as happened to me when I tested one head. Indeed, cooking a few heads of garlic in this manner will have your yard smelling quite potently of garlic. It’ll either make your neighbors long to come over — or scare away any vampires lurking in the vicinity.

Whole heads of garlic get wrapped in foil...

Whole heads of garlic get wrapped in foil…

The foil packets get buried in embers for an hour.

The foil packets get buried in embers for an hour.

Voila -- soft, buttery, spreadable garlic paste.

Voila — soft, buttery, spreadable garlic paste.

The garlic grows tamer and far butterier when cooked in this manner. You make a dressing with it that gets tossed with potatoes that are first par-boiled before going on the grill along with green onions. More onions — red ones — get steeped in lemon juice to pickle them and give them a bright tanginess. Loads of fresh, crisp celery gets tossed in, too, to give a welcome crunch.

The potatoes end up wonderfully crusty on the outside from being on the grill. The whole salad has a wonderful smokiness that you don’t find in other potato salads, too. The dressing is almost aioli-like; the sweet garlic is definitely pronounced, but not overkill.

Try your hand at cooking in embers just like all the cool chefs do.

Ember-Roasted Garlic

4 heads of garlic

Olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Slice the top off of each garlic head. Drizzle olive oil and salt and pepper on each. Double-wrap in foil and bury the packets in the embers. Low embers are better — if the fire is too hot the garlic will burn. Leave the packets in the fire for an hour or so, then take them out, and let the garlic cool. Squeeze the garlic paste out of each clove just as you would with oven-roasted garlic.

It freezes well, too, so you can always have a handy stash on hand.


Roasted Garlic Dressing

(Makes about 2 1/4 cups)

For garlic paste:

4 heads ember-roasted garlic

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 sprigs thyme, chopped

Coarse sea salt, preferably gray salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For rest of the dressing:

1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, preferably gray salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup Champagne vinegar

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon

1/2 teaspoon minced shallots

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

To make the garlic paste: Squeeze garlic paste from each clove of the roasted heads into a bowl. Whisk in olive oil and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Store covered in the refrigerator for 1 week or freeze for up to 2 months.

To make the dressing: Stir together the garlic paste, salt, pepper, vinegar, 1/2 cup water, mustard, tarragon and shallots. While whisking continuously, slowly drizzle in the olive oil.

Store covered in your refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Note: This will make more than enough dressing for the potato salad. Use leftover dressing on green salads or for dunking crudites.


 Roasted Potato Salad with Roasted Garlic Dressing

(Serves 6)

5 tablespoons kosher salt

2 pounds medium red potatoes, peel left on

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

1 medium red onion

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

6 whole green onions

2 cups finely sliced celery (about 1 whole head; shave on a mandoline or slice very thinly)

1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon

3 tablespoons Roasted Garlic Dressing or to taste

Coarse sea salt, preferably gray salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fill a large pot with 4 to 5 quarts of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add kosher salt to the water. While the water heats, quarter the potatoes, from end to end.

When the water is boiling, add potatoes, decrease heat to medium, and simmer until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and spread them out on a baking sheet so the steam evaporates. Taste them for seasoning and add more kosher salt if they need it. Toss potatoes with 1/2 cup of olive oil and set aside.

Turn a gas grill to high or ignite charcoal. When grill is hot, for both gas and charcoal grills, clean your grill rack. Decrease the temperature to medium-high (on a gas grill only), and brush or wipe a little olive oil on the grill rack.

Trim ends from the red onion, halve the onion from end to end, then peel. Slice each half into thin half-moons; place the onion slices in a medium bowl and pour the lemon juice over them. Toss the slices in the lemon juice, and set aside.

When grill is hot, place oiled potatoes on the rack. (You can put them in a grill basket if you like.) Grill, turning every 2 minutes, until potatoes are tender inside and golden brown all the way around, 15 to 17 minutes. When potatoes are done, take them off the grill and set aside.

Drizzle the green onions with a little olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. Grill for 1 minute, turn, and grill for 1 more minute. Take the green onions off the grill, let them cool, and then slice on the diagonal. Set aside.

When potatoes have cooled slightly, cut them into bite-size chunks.

Gently toss potatoes, red onions, green onions, celery, tarragon and Roasted Garlic Dressing. Taste and season with sea salt and pepper, if needed.

Serve at room temperature or chilled. Because there is no mayo in this, it will keep in the fridge 3 to 4 days, and travels well for picnics.

Recipes adapted from “Michael Chiarello’s Live Fire


More: My Q&A with Chef Michael Chiarello

And: My Dinner at Coqueta


And: My Dinner at Bottega


And: Michael Chiarello’s Zinfandel Spaghettini  with Spicy Rapini

Print This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *