Up Your Grill Game with a Wood-Fired Oven

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Labor Day weekend was a couple of weeks ago and we spent time with family as most Americans do on this last holiday of the summer. Saturday was spent watching the first Penn State game at my sister-in-law’s with all the awesome tailgating food associated with football. Then, Sunday was spent with my family at my nephew’s housewarming where we had all the flavors of home.

Did you know:

Labor Day was created by the labor movement of the late 19th century to pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. It became a federal holiday in 1894.

On Monday, we decided to chill out at our house and cook something in the wood fired oven. But what should we cook? We’ve been talking about grilling in the oven for some time and thought there was no time like the present.

When we moved into our house, there was an old fireplace/grill monstrosity in a bad location near our carport. We briefly considered trying to convert this to a wfo, but quickly decided that was a bad idea. So, I took hammer to chisel and tore out as much as I could with my limited muscle capacity. Then my brother stepped in and saved the day by removing the rest with a sledge hammer. From this demolition came many fire bricks, three of which we used to repair the front of our oven from the winter’s damage (see the very end of my Big Build post for pictures), and a couple of grill grates. We had never tested to see if the grates would fit in our oven, but always considered giving it a shot.

steak               lobster

So, what to cook? We’ve seen videos of all kinds of things grilling in a wfo, but the most appetizing was surf and turf. We chose a couple of beautiful 1 1/2″ thick filets and a 1 pound lobster to share and got prepping. First we made sure the grill grate would fit in the oven and it did perfectly! We removed the grate and started the fire. When most of the wood was good and charred, but there were still flames, we started prepping the food.

First up, kill the lobster! This always makes me think of Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the wabbit!” 🙂 This is not the most fun part of the meal, but a necessary evil if you want the freshest seafood.

Saveur Magazine offers these tips for How to Humanely Kill a Lobster (watch the video here):

  1. Chill a live lobster in the freezer for 15-20 minutes to relax and numb it
  2. Place the lobster, belly side down, on a cutting board
  3. Place the tip of the knife at the center of the cross on top of the lobster’s head, right behind the eyes
  4. Cut through the head with a firm, quick motion
  5. Flip the lobster over and slice lengthwise from head to tail (some reflexive movements of the lobster are normal)
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Next, remove and discard the yellowish-green tomalley and break off the claws by twisting at the joint closest to the body. Also, don’t forget to remove the bands on the claws! If you don’t, you will have a real mess when they hit the heat!! Crack the claws slightly to allow the heat to reach the meat better while cooking. You can use proper seafood tools if you have them or the back of a knife blade works equally well. Then move the claws and body, shell side down, to a tray and drizzle with olive oil and salt & pepper.


Now we need to combine the ingredients for the butter that we’ll use to poach the lobster as it cooks. You’ll need butter, chopped fresh parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic, lemon zest and salt & pepper.
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On to the steak…

Simple, minimal and flavorful ingredients will make this steak fabulous. We learned this tip years ago from Bobby Flay…salt a piece of steak liberally…and by liberally, I mean a couple of good sized pinches of table salt on each side. If you can still see the salt laying on top of the meat after a couple of minutes, you know you have enough; otherwise, it will melt into the meat immediately. Trust me, you will think you are putting too much salt on, but it will be perfectly seasoned when done cooking. After salting and peppering the steak, add sprigs of rosemary and drizzle with a good olive oil on both sides. That’s it. SO tasty!
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When we came out to the oven with the prepped steak and lobster, the coals were perfect and ready for grilling. I scraped the coals into a pile in the center of the oven, near the front, then placed a fire brick on each side of the coals and topped it with the grill grate. Let it sit for a couple of minutes so it heats up a bit.


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We cooked the steak first so it had time to rest while the lobster cooked. Always let your steaks, or any meat, rest for 10 minutes or so after cooking so you don’t lose all the wonderful juices and dry out the meat.

Place the steaks on the grill. Cook the first side for 3 minutes, flip and cook the other side for 3 minutes. Then rotate 90 degrees as you flip again to get those beautiful cross-hatch grill marks. Cook each side for another minute, remove from heat and let rest. Your steak will still be pretty rare, so if you like it cooked more, just leave it on the grill a little longer.

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Now, put the lobster flesh side down on the grill, along with the claws, and cook for 2-3 minutes. Flip the lobster body over and spoon the butter mixture all over, allowing it to pool in the crevices. Continue grilling for another 3-5 minutes until the meat is cooked through. Unfortunately it is very easy to overcook your lobster resulting in tough, chewy meat. Follow these times and you should be rewarded with a perfectly cooked lobster.

Now you are ready to enjoy this delectable meal. We added a cucumber/tomato salad and paired this all with a crisp, white wine. What a fabulous weekend!!

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A New Take on an Old Favorite

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I can’t stop talking about the bountiful, beautiful tomatoes we are getting from our garden right now and I know farmers markets are overflowing with them as well. So, at this time of year, I’m always looking for any way to use the tomatoes before they go bad. I’ve already shared with you our Easy Roasted Tomato Sauce recipe, which is one way to use up a lot of your tomatoes. Another way, that may not use a ton of tomatoes but is definitely a way to show off that prized fruit, is a Margherita pizza. One of the most popular pizzas in the world, the quintessential basil, tomatoes and mozzarella toppings are simple, yet delicious.

According to popular belief, Pizza Margherita was created during a visit by King Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita of Savoy to Naples in 1889. Chef Raffaele Esposito created a pizza which resembled the Italian flag of green, white & red (basil, mozzarella & tomatoes) and named it after the Queen. Since 2009, Pizza Margherita is one of three Napoli pizzas with a STG label (Traditional Guaranteed Specialty). This labeling is similar to the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) labels on some Italian food or the DOCG (Controlled Origin/Production and Guaranteed Quality Denomination) labels on Chianti and other Italian wines. To make a true, STG Pizza Margherita, there are certain specifications that must be met:

  1. A 3mm thick disk of dough with a 1-2cm high crust
  2. No other working tools other than the hands of the pizza maker are allowed, no rolling pin or mechanical press machine
  3. It needs to be cooked in a wood-fired brick oven at 485C for about 90 seconds.

That’s a nice thin crust, 3mm is only around 1/10th of an inch thick and the crust would be around 1/3 to a little over 2/3 of an inch. Also, can we talk about that heat! WOW!! 485C is around 905F. We don’t fire our wfo to that temp. As a general rule, the dome is usually around 500F and the floor is anywhere from 500-750F.

Of course, we are not as precise as those rules; however, the traditional toppings of basil, mozzarella and tomatoes are standard when making or ordering a Margherita pizza. That is until my wife decided to shake things up a bit and we found a new favorite way to make Pizza Margherita. The secret? Ricotta cheese!

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Add herbs, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to the ricotta, schmear it all over the crust, top with fresh sliced tomatoes, basil and a drizzle of olive oil. Then pop it into your wfo for a minute or two. The seasoned ricotta soaks up the watery tomato and the flavors all blend well together to make a truly tasty pizza!!

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We prefer to use fresh tomatoes whenever possible, but you could also use our tomato sauce or make a super simple sauce from a can of San Marzano tomatoes and a little salt. Now, I do realize this isn’t really Pizza Margherita since we didn’t use mozzarella, but I won’t tell if you won’t 🙂

Try it the next time you have fresh tomatoes…you won’t regret it.