No one ever wants to sit around an electric oven or a gas stovetop reciting poetry," Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann once said. "But fire – well, it excites me and soothes the soul."
The romance of a burning fire is why outdoor cooking and entertaining is so appealing. In Canada, we open our doors to alfresco meals mostly in the summer. However, as a country that is largely covered in ice or snow for three to four months of the year, we ought to be taking parties outside more often – even in January and February.
When Toronto chef Anthony Rose entertains, he also prefers the allure of the outdoors. Big Crow, his Algonquin-themed barbecue restaurant, is open year-round, but it's best enjoyed in the winter. During the frigid months, the closed roof hugs the smoke wafting from the open fire and guests drape themselves in big wool blankets in the candlelight. The restaurant's outdoor cooking is inspired by camping. Even when the temperature drops below freezing, Rose prefers cooking outside to standing by the stove because it's more interactive. "It's like a dinner and show. You can help flip a steak, you can poke at the fire."
Here are some dos and don'ts for how to get started with hosting your own outdoor party this winter:
Do keep it simple.
For winter cooking outdoors, Rose suggests meals that lend themselves to slow cooking, like barbecue. "The longer, the slower, the better," he says. Whether you're using your grill, an outdoor oven or an open fire, he suggests dishes like roasted pork butt or brisket and adding wood chips to enhance flavour. "If you start early in the morning, then there's little work to do when guests arrive," Rose says. Add simple vegetable sides like roasted potatoes, mushrooms and cauliflower – ideally also cooked over the fire – and you've got an impressive and satisfying meal.
Don't complicate beverages.
Dark spirits are made for winter drinking by the fire, both inside and out. Just one bottle of highquality whisky and a few glasses are all you need. It's warmth in a bottle – and it's also one of the easiest ways to serve drinks. Ron Swanson would approve.
Do get inspiration from street food.
In parts of Asia and Europe, street vendors sell roasted chestnuts in the fall through to the winter. The hawkers perfume the air with the smell of browning chestnuts cooking over hot coals. You can replicate this coldweather treat on the grill with a grilling basket or over an open fire with a cast iron pan. Throw them into small paper bags and they become portable snacks for your daytime hike or snowshoe excursion.
Don't let your guests freeze.
Guests want to feel cozy in the winter, even if they're wearing winter boots. Head to a local army surplus store and stock up on good quality wool blankets. Don't make guests sit on metal furniture that's been out in the cold all season. Bring out cushions from indoors or follow Café Bicyclette's lead. The Edmonton restaurant at La Cité Francophone keeps its patio open all year long and, to prevent bottoms from getting cold, it provides Lava Seats. Available at retailers like Canadian Tire and Amazon, these seats are heated in the microwave and stay warm for up to six hours.
Daniel Cournoyer, executive director of La Cité Francophone says that fire is still the best way to attract people and keep them warm. "The fire is the allure of the winter patio; it's about creating the allure of the après ski feeling. There's always a fire that people gather around, maybe with some drinks."
In addition to the fire and warm drinks like mulled cider, Cournoyer and his team also make use of the snow and create igloo-like walls around the patio. The walls act as insulation that keeps the heat inside and blocks out the wind.
Do light the way.
Unlike the long days of summer, the sun doesn't stay out late in January. Start your party earlier in the day. As night falls, light the way with a bonfire. Lanterns and even headlamps will come in handy for impromptu snow-fortbuilding or snowshoeing.
Don't let the kids get bored.
Snow alone can entertain children and adults alike. If you don't have enough of the white stuff for snow forts, snow angels or snowmen, keep lawn games handy. Traditional warm-weather games like bocce or croquet can still entertain guests in the winter. These are fun even if there's snow on the ground. You can get kids to craft snow obstacles to make the games more challenging.
Do get inspired.
If you're still looking for inspiration to cook outdoors or you want to take the challenge to the next level, look no further than Mallmann. His food is inspired by his home, Patagonia, and gauchos (South American cowboys), and he is the master of cooking with fire in all its forms. Seek out his books Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way and Mallmann on Fire: 100 Recipes. Both include beautiful photography and innovative recipes that will, hopefully, excite you and soothe your soul.