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How To, Cooking Outdoors

With the solstice approaching and those long days of summer within reach, we turned to two experts for advice on one of the best parts of this time of year: eating and cooking outside.  LEV, the brainchild of Daniel and Loren, is a company focused on site specific cooking - which has led them to cook in some very unique environments.  With formal training in kitchens throughout Europe and Israel where they both were born, the friends have combined their talents and values to use simplicity and the essence of the ingredient as the backbone of how they cook.  Seeming like an ideal source to turn to on all things related to outdoor cooking, we spoke with them for guidance on what to bring when cooking outside, working with sourdough bread, and what they would bring for a picnic and more.

TPE: First, what brought your interest to outdoor dining and cooking? From working as chefs across Europe and namely in Italy, what inspired the move to site-specific cooking?

LEV: Cooking outdoors is simply more fun. The fact that you have space, the sky above, and the energy of the fire, it is just better than being in fluorescent lit back kitchens. In rural Europe the kitchens, even those in high end restaurants, have some aspect of an outdoor kitchen and bring nature, the "outside" to the dining spaces, whether inside or out. Site specific is the most natural way for us to cook and present our food as there is a direct connection between what we do and the space, the energy and the people.

TPE: What drew you to charcoal grilling/open fire and smoked food?

LEV: The energy! Fire is a powerful energy. You have to engage with all of your body and senses in controlling the fire and manipulating it to get what you want. Then the flavor of smoke is just so primitively delicious.

TPE: What are some of the more unconventional locations you have cooked in? You mention fields, warehouses? Any others like that? Out of curiosity.

LEV: A boat, in a destroyed palace in Marrakech Morocco, in the street in Manhattan.

TPE: When you are personally prepping for a small event, say a personal event or picnic with close friends, what’s a go-to dish you tend to bring?

LEV: That really depends on who we are cooking for. A big part of cooking is knowing who you cook for. What will they enjoy? We of course have our culinary language but within it we can shape a meal so that it hits the point. But if you were going to the park or something like that I would bring:

Fresh vegetables
Skewers to grill meats

TPE: What’s the draw of sourdough bread for you? Do you build a meal around something like sourdough and go from there?

LEV: Sourdough is a more complex deep flavor we find in breads. It also allows for easier digestion and lasts longer than yeasted doughs. We still love yeasted doughs and think that for some breads it is more suitable.

TPE: Any special tips on making your own sourdough starter? Or any tips for newcomers to sourdough cooking?

LEV: Take it slow and let yourself make mistakes. Use the starter at its peak - depending on the weather it can run from 4-8 hours after you feed it.

TPE: How do you best work in leavening and baking bread the same day when planning for an event time-wise? It seems so daunting to bake bread the same day in addition to other spreads or side dishes.

LEV: We usually go for yeasted breads when we do events without much prep time. But most times we just start the dough the day before and then shape and proof it the day of, that also goes for yeasted doughs.

TPE: What’s a great in-advance thing to cook and bring to a picnic? Something you make one to two days ahead that only gets better with that extra time in the fridge?

LEV: Beans! - braising beans in water and a lot of olive oil. Love eating them cold too.

TPE: What’s your favorite cookware for outdoor grilling or cooking? Cast iron? Titanium (for lightness)

LEV: Cast iron for sure. It's annoying to carry but the results are so much better and it can withhold the intensity of fire.

TPE: What kind of dishes do you like to serve outdoor food in? What kind of tableware? Do you bring full on metal flatware just like at home and pack it up or invest in a set of to-go tableware (enamelware, etc)?

LEV: So we usually just serve from the cooking vessels like the cast irons and clay vessels are also great. We also have enamel ware and some large round stainless steel trays we just lay the foods on and everyone eats directly from that with their hands.

TPE: How to best combat unexpected elements when cooking outdoors or at a picnic setting or at the beach etc? For super hot days when everything melts? For a ton of wind (when grilling—and when eating)? For cold? How do you prepare? What have you learned from experience with this?

LEV: Have lots of water with you and a hat on hot days or dress well if it's cold. Then just use your instincts.

TPE: We love the idea of getting friends/guests involved in the cooking? What are some good tasks/jobs around the fire and outdoor kitchen setup that you like to delegate to include others?

LEV: Any help is good - bringing things over, tending the fire, moving elements in the fire.

TPE: What’s your outdoor grill set up like? What tools?

LEV: We have our grill kit which always has:

Small propane gun burner
Heat gloves
long tongs
Nafnaf - that's a hand held fan

TPE: How to keep the whole setup clean and tidy?

LEV: We just keep it tidy and we bring some ecological sanitation soap for washing dishes. But working outdoors and with fire is "messy". It is just part of it and it's part of the fun.