Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way
by Francis Mallmann, Peter Kaminsky
Publisher: Artisan, Country: US
ISBN: 9781579653545, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Big. Bold. Burning! Those words summarize this near flawless book from famed South American chef and restaurateur, Francis Mallmann, and author Peter Kaminsky. Seven Fires refers to the techniques that Mallmann uses when cooking: Chapa, Little Hell, Parilla, Horno de Barro, Rescoldo, Asador and Caldero. You ask, “Where are hibachi and sterno?” Not to be found in this book. Seven Fires is about serious grilling – the type that you dream of doing. The cover teases us with Mallman genteelly grilling over burning embers, but open the cover and whole hogs are split wide, splayed above massive infernos. But not to fear, this book is truly accessible to all.

Full review

At 288 pages, and 250 photographs, this is a serious book perfect for the coffee table, but don’t you dare! Page after page of glorious pictures, stunning, well-designed recipes, and a generous sharing of anecdote, make this book one of the most perfect cookbooks I have read to date.

But let me back up. When this book hit my mailbox I afforded it the obligatory flip through. Page after page of flames, embers, split cows, and scenery so perfect that it felt out of reach to me. The book sat for two weeks untouched. On second read, I focused on the recipes and found it hard to get past the extremely long and detailed celebration preparations such as his description of the asado:

Shopping List
1 whole standing rib roast, about 9 ½ pounds
1 ½ to 2 pounds of sirloin tri-tip roast
3 pounds short ribs, cut crosswise into strips about ¾ inch thick
3 pounds fresh sausage

And the list continues and continues to the point of mind-numbing exhaustion. As a chef, even I was overwhelmed relenting, “I’ll never do that.” Then I continued to catch gems such as

Choose the wines. Rustic and red is never wrong.

12:30 pm: Uncork the wine. Slice the baguette
1 pm: Guests can serve themselves at the bar

This is not a book of pretension. It is a book by a chef who celebrates his culture and tradition. But is the book appropriate for the non-gaucho? Absolutely. These asado preparations are a small part of the book. The majority of the book is filled with recipes such as Burnt Tomato Halves, Whole Andean Pumpkin Salad with Mint, Arugula, and Goat Cheese, and Dulce de Leche Panqueque. More recipes than you can make in a hot summer, many of which are simple fare easily prepared on your stovetop.

Seven Fires launches with Mallmann’s recollections of growing up in the Andes, then evolves into the seven grilling techniques, all of which are used in the recipes, but all of which are modifiable to the home cook without a fire pit in your backyard. Trailing the seven techniques, the book follows a more traditional format to include recipes categorized by appetizers, meat type, vegetables, light meals and salads, desserts, breads and basics. These recipes include:

Fresh figs with mozzarella, thyme and olive oil
Empanadas Mendocinas
Beef and Potato Pie
7 ½-Hour Lamb Malbec with Rosemary and Lemon
Herbed Potatoes Anna
Grapefruit Salad with Arugula and Toasted Hazelnuts
Granny Smith Pancakes

One of the book’s most endearing aspects is the authentic involvement of Mallmann. Most chef authored books rely on a professional author to tell us what the chef meant to say. In Seven Fires, Mallmann tells us what he wants to say whether it be about a technique or ingredient (“Cracking open a mound of salt and watching the steam waft up is a nice way to add drama to what could otherwise be a run-of-the-mill plate of winter vegetables.”) or a personal reflection (“I think Salta is the part of my country with the richest culinary traditions. The señores still come to lunch with their guns tucked into their belts!”). This aspect is a true joy and appropriate as Mallmann lets us into his home and hearth. These comments are not relegated to the introductory chapter, but are found in every recipe on every page.

The greatest challenge of this book remains the emphasis on fire. What is the book’s strongest asset is also its Achilles heel. It took me quite some time to see beyond the bigness and boldness. At home my hibachi briquettes are the largest flames that I use. And so Mallmann’s, “Start your fire with kindling and about 10 logs approximately 6 inches in diameter at 6 a.m.” is a bit intimidating. Fortunately (I’ll assume Kaminsky stepped in to help people like me) each recipe is translated to the home kitchen. The adaptations may use only a home oven (albeit set to very high temperatures), stove top, cast iron pans and griddles, or an additional steps in cooking — all very accessible. The book makes me want to find a fire pit and light the match, but I don’t need to go to such extremes. This book has also made me covet my friend’s new horno which he is using exclusively for pizza. Seven Fires will find its way to my friend’s doorstep, along with a bottle of rustic red wine, and maybe even a large farm animal, and we will have our own mini-asado.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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One Comment

  1. Posted 18 Aug 2009 at 03:53 | Permalink

    I had a chance to check out Francis Mallman and Peter Kaminsky’s cookbook yesterday while at a friend’s house. Absolutely lovely, inspiring images. The recipes are extremely interesting but the instructions are mainly for those who relish playing with fire and have access to wood and sticks that lend themselves to serving as skewers and the sort. I want to cook something suspended on y-sticks of wood but getting a a pair is not as easy as it seems. The splayed salmon stuck on sticks look awesome but where do I get them? It’s the fire that gives the food its extra special qualities. Because the imagery is so evocative and provocative, I’m not sure if my home kitchen and gas grill will suffice.

    Indeed, as you point out, that is a weakness of the book. Then, perhaps we just all have to head south for the real deal! Artisan publishes gorgeous books that take you to many places and allow you to savor uncommon flavors.

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