More research needs to be done. Surely the stereotype of women in the kitchen and men at the grill has faded into prehistory, along with many other gender-based distinctions. Surely, too, the saber-tooth-slaying male has more on his mind these days than building a fire to sear the bounty of the hunt. But all of the information to date suggests that, at least in San Antonio, it’s guys who are fascinated with outdoor ovens. I count a former San Antonian who has since moved to Mexico, where his outdoor oven was built even before the house was fully finished, among their numbers.
But none of these modern-day stick-rubbers simply stepped up to a more sophisticated version of a primitive campfire; they’re all cooks first. In Keith Kuhn’s case, his interest in cooking is far more serious than weekend pot-wrangling. Along with his wife Kristy and brother Troy, Kuhn runs Serendipity Wine Imports by day (and sometimes around the clock), but it’s easy to get the impression he might have been a full-time chef in another life. In 2002, in fact, he attended the French Culinary Institute in New York, but he was already behind a professional stove as early as 1992, when he cooked at then-one-star Le Table d’Anvers in Paris, followed by a stint at The Ark in London, where he also stayed on as a waiter to support a living-in-London habit. In San Francisco, his other favorite city, Kuhn spent several subsequent years at both the front and back of the house, working with Julian Serrano (now head chef at Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel) and finally as manager and wine buyer at a restaurant called M Point Bar & Grill. All of this experience is apparent in the offhand ease with which he sweats onions for one pizza we will sample (see recipe that follows) and prepares a simple tomato sauce for another. Sometimes it’s the simple stuff that really requires skill.
Fittingly for someone who believes in minimal intervention, Kuhn’s outdoor oven sits in the middle of an organic garden: the tomatoes for that marinara and more will surround the hearth in a kind of homage to their apotheosis. “I used a book I checked out of the library of the French Culinary Institute `for the plans`,” he says, and you can find The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing & Alan Scott at Amazon and other online vendors. Further probing will get you to Scott’s site, ovencrafters.net and to woodfiredpizza.org. You are not alone in your interest, and these are invaluable resources. Check out especially the construction photos on the woodfired site; they will either suggest it’s a do-it-yourself snap or snafu, depending on your skill level. “I hired a mason currently working on the Pearl Brewery stuff … he charged me $3,500 with labor and materials,” reveals Kuhn.
Build-your-own-pizza parties are regular occurrences at Jim Bugg’s Monte Vista home, and when I arrive two hours early to help fire up the oven, I am pleased to find two proofing boxes containing perfect, pre-portioned domes of dough from three different types of flour: super-fine, semolina, and whole wheat. “I like letting the dough sit overnight to develop flavor,” says Bugg. He has also made loaves of saltless Tuscan bread which, when toasted in the pizza oven, will serve as the base for bruschette. The be-prepared attitude of this physician and amateur baker is also apparent in the carefully stacked oak atop kindling in the oven; all I have to do is click the lighter.
The fire doesn’t stay in the center of the oven for long. Practiced fire-handler Sean Parchem, a trainer at the downtown Y, shows me how to move the glowing logs to one side with a kind of long-handled spade or peel (it’s also used to remove pizzas) where the flames can sweep the arc of the dome from one side to the other. We’re waiting for the masonry surface to begin to turn white. When deemed ready, more wood is added, and it’s my turn to move the pile to the other side. So, fine; I’m not as neat.
Bugg wasn’t convinced he’d be able to find someone to build an oven from scratch, so he went the packaged-product route, ordering a Medio 110 model from Mugnaini in San Francisco (mugnaini.com). The oven arrived in several pieces (the dome, for example, is divided into four lobes) to be assembled atop a sturdy steel stand. Batt insulation is added over the dome, an exterior shell is built in any form desired — as long as it accommodates the needed loose insulation, and a finish is added. This flexibility was perfect for Bugg who was incorporating the oven into the exterior corner of a newly constructed porch — outdoors, but covered, the perfect all-weather solution.
It’s a beautiful spring day, but it’s easy to imagine gathering around the oven on a nippy fall afternoon as well; the metal door is left partly ajar when pizzas aren’t being placed or removed, and the glow of the fire exerts its expected primal power. Back in the well-equipped kitchen, it’s assembly time, and my pizza bianca with Taleggio, ricotta, an onion confit, and pine nuts is the first to hit the oven. (An hour after lighting the fire, a handheld laser probe registered 700 degrees on the oven floor.) I had stretched and cajoled my allocated blob of semolina dough into a rough circle on a cornmeal-dusted wooden peel (rolling the dough is also fine if nobody’s looking), and it slid easily into the oven. Turning it with the long-handled peel so that it cooked evenly was a little trickier, but it emerged about 90 seconds later looking appropriately rustic and ready for a drizzling of truffle oil. Fantastic, if I do say so myself.
As were all of the pizzas that followed. There’s something about this very immediate process that inspires creativity. Imagine bacon, cabbage, and gruyere with a Dijon mustard base, for example; it was another hit. After the parade of pizzas diminished, into the oven went some partially baked chickens to be finished off; a pan of asparagus anointed with olive oil followed soon thereafter. It would take several hours more for the oven to cool to the point that bread could successfully be baked, so that experience would have to wait. The spark, however, had been struck. My backyard isn’t very big, but surely there’s room somewhere … •
½ c semolina flour
1 c unbleached all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
½ t salt
½ c water
2 T olive oil
Place the dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in the center, add the water and olive oil, and gradually incorporate the dry ingredients. (Alternatively, throw it all into a food processor.) Knead on a floured board for about five minutes to develop elasticity. The dough may be used immediately. Makes one 12-inch pizza base.
Cavolo Nero Pizza
with Onion Confit and Bacon
1 bunch cavolo nero or dinosaur kale (very dark green and wrinkly by whatever name)
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
Red pepper flakes (Keith uses piri-piri peppers from the French Antilles, but the standard pizza-parlor kind will do nicely)
Mozzarella, shredded (maybe about half of a freshly made lobe from Central Market)
2 strips bacon cut crosswise into matchsticks
Salt and pepper to taste
At least 30 minutes before you plan to assemble the pizza, add about ¼ cup of olive oil to a heavy skillet, add the sliced yellow onions, a couple grinds of pepper and a pinch of salt. Sweat over low heat, lid on, until very jammy. When onions are almost ready, add to another heavy skillet about a tablespoon of olive oil. While it is heating, remove the light-colored stems from the kale, discard, and cut the remainder into strips about ½-inch wide. Add to the heated pan, wait about a minute, then add the sliced garlic and a shake of pepper flakes. Cook briefly, just to wilt.
To assemble the pizza, roll or pull the pizza into shape, add just enough onion confit to cover the base, leaving about an inch all the way around. Pull the mozzarella into shreds and cover the onion generously but not completely. Add the kale over all (don’t overload — less may be more) and scatter the raw bacon over the top. Add more pepper flakes if desired.
Lacking an outdoor oven (as most of us do), bake in a pre-heated 500-degree oven on a pre-heated pizza stone — a worthwhile investment. Check for doneness in about five or six minutes.