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Q&A: Talking about fire and seasonal feasting with the chefs from Portland’s Ox restaurant

The cover of "Around the Fire"; chefs and authors Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton.
The cover of “Around the Fire”; chefs and authors Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton.
(Ten Speed Press / John Valls)

It’s hard to decide what about “Around the Fire,” by Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton, is most intriguing: that the new meat-minded, grill-centric cookbook arrives just when you’ve been spending time cleaning the cooking grates of your backyard Weber? Or that these James Beard Award-nominated husband-and-wife co-chefs seem to be on the reader’s side when it comes to duplicating some of the most popular dishes at Ox, their critically acclaimed Portland, Ore., restaurant?

“My mom was invited to a dinner party where a woman cooked the whole meal straight from the cookbook,” said Quiñónez Denton when asked about the response to their loose, you-can-do-it approach. “She was so proud of herself, just gloating. She said, ‘This is the best food I’ve ever cooked.’”

At least some of the couple’s brand of Argentinian grilling by way of Pacific Northwest seasonality has its roots in Los Angeles-raised Quiñónez Denton’s summers spent with relatives in Quito, Ecuador. It was there that she fell in love with seafood ceviches, hominy stews and empanadas. “As a kid, there weren’t that many Ecuadorian restaurants in L.A., maybe two,” said Quiñónez Denton. “Unless you were in someone’s home, you weren’t eating those Ecuadorian dishes.”

The two met in 1999 in the kitchen of Napa Valley’s Terra restaurant, then they put in a stint at the Mala Ocean Tavern in Maui. When they began to long for cold-weather food (“We missed roasting and braising,” said Denton), they moved to Portland in 2009.

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Tonight, the Dentons will sign copies of “Around the Fire” at a special prix fixe Ox-inspired dinner in collaboration with Kris Morningstar’s Terrine. Recently, the couple got on the phone to talk about — among other things — how to make a mother marinade of deliciousness, their newly opened Portland restaurant, SuperBite, and the meaning of “hangry.”

Judging from your Instagram feed, what recipes in “Around the Fire” are calling out to people?

Gabi: I think the most popular thing is the grilled skirt steak with onion marinade and chimichurri. I’ve seen a couple of people post the grilled asparagus with Dungeness crab, fresh herbs and crispy capers. And chowder! People have made the clam chowder with smoked marrow bones, green onion and jalapeño. That surprises the heck out of me. It’s one of the more challenging, labor-intensive recipes in the book.

Fans of Ox will probably be surprised at how many signature items are included in “Around the Fire.” Including the Dirty Grandma Agnes, a martini that calls for dry vermouth, vodka and pickle juice.

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Greg: Of course. From the very beginning we were selling it by the bucket-load. People just love what pickle brine does to a martini instead of using the normal olive brine. It’s named after my grandma, who was not dirty at all. She got a great kick out of the name when we told her about it. She had a great sense of humor.

Let’s go back in time. Greg, you’ve said that your first kitchen job was at age 9 at a restaurant in Rutland, Vt. Walk us through the application process.

Greg: We lived basically right next to the restaurant. It was called Lum’s. My dad was the general manager. Partially to keep an eye on my brothers and I, we worked at the restaurant. But I had the interest. I’d prep and do dishes in the morning. I started cooking on the line when I was 14. You learn how to cook a steak, a burger, how to make sandwiches. I still actually take thoughts and ideas that I had at that age and I apply them to things that I do now.

For example?

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Greg: Where to put acid? What to combine with a salad? How delicious potato skins are when you put sour cream, cheese, green onions, bacon and whatnot on them. We’re always playing around with that spicy-salty-blue-cheesy-crispy combination of things. It’s not like I put chicken wings on the menu. It’s like I tap into that palette from that age.

Fittingly, the first recipe in your book is for spiced beef empanadas with olives and raisins. Gabi, share some memories about your childhood summers spent in the Andean highlands.

Gabi: My family still lives there. My grandmother basically spent her life in the kitchen. As a child I definitely enjoyed being with her, watching her make all of my favorite treats that I’d get to eat while I was there in Ecuador. She’d make empanadas with cheese and minced onion that are fried, and then — this sounds so bizarre — they’re taken out of the fryer and dusted with a kind of bigger-grain, less-refined granulated sugar. It’s kind of strange, with the cheese and the onions, but it works really, really well. They’re called empanadas de viento or “empanadas of the wind” because they puff up when they’re frying. It looks almost like its empty because all the cheese and onions have melted on the bottom with the big puffy dome over it.

Is there a dish that your grandmother made that you can’t seem to master?

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Gabi: Over the last six months I’ve been trying to make another style of empanadas and I can’t get it quite right. It’s a kind of empanadas that you get in the highlands of Ecuador and it is called empanadas de morocho. [The dough is made from] a big grain corn that’s dried and then ground. The filling is usually just minced pork, onions, garlic and annatto seed oil so it’s got this orange color. The spices are minimal, maybe salt, a little oil, just a little bit of carrot and sometimes peas.

They’re really hard to work with. You form the empanadas and then you fry them and they almost crackle with the crispiness. They’re delicate and greasy and they’re so good with Aji hot sauce. We get in multiple kinds of hominy because it’s on the menu at Ox. I’ve tried different ways of cooking it. I’ve tried soaking it. I tried soaking it and rinsing it for a week. I’ve tried grinding it. I’ve tried everything and I can’t get it right. In Ecuador, it’s just one of those ingredients that you take for granted. You can go to the mercado, the open-air market, and you can buy a bag of masa and then just make the filling yourself. That’s definitely one of those things that keeps me up at night.

Part of your research involved traveling to Argentina and Spain. One takeaway was how, when it comes to wood-fired grilling, location wasn’t a high priority.

Greg: Americans always have a barbecue area. Like, this is where we grill. It’s much more free-flowing there. Once, this guy was cooking a baby lamb and he just kind of threw it on the lawn. Like, “Here’s where we are cooking it!” There’s a picture in the book of this guy stabbing beef ribs. He just threw it on a piece of sheet metal and used this big old pitchfork to pick it up, move it and turn it over. It was amazing. A lot of people here have big, beautiful, amazing, fancy grills. And all you really need is fire and some sort of metal to keep the meat from falling into the coals in the fire. It comes out just as good.

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At Ox, you use a giant Argentinian-style grill with grooves that catch the fat as it runs off. Talk about the decision to use that overflow.

Greg: What we knew was that the stuff coming off the grill was fantastic. But we thought, “How can we make it taste better?” So we started lining those troughs with lemon, garlic, herbs, green onions and whatnot. Then as the night goes on and we’re cooking hundreds of pounds of meat, we end up with this fantastic, really warm fat that we use for basting the meat that we’re cooking all night.

Gabi: As much as we love cooking over a wood fire grill or charcoal, a lot of people aren’t able to. In a lot of places you have to have a gas grill or you’re cooking indoors on a grill pan. So we tried to figure out a way to bring more flavor to something that you’re grilling.

Isn’t that how you came up with “Black Gold,” a home version of that basting liquid?

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Gabi: What we did was duplicate the same aromatics and we kind of tried to leave it up to the reader to figure out what kind of fat they want to use. People who cook a lot of bacon will save the bacon fat in the refrigerator. If you like to trim your meat you can always render the fat from that. But it can also be as simple as putting some butter in there and some olive oil or whatever you have on hand and then slowly heating it. And you’ll start to infuse that fat with all of those aromatics. Twenty minutes later you have a really delicious herb, spice and fat that you can baste anything with.

Greg: You baste your meat with an herb brush or a regular brush and it’s soon going to be a mix of those juices. We also say to people just to strain it out, save it in the fridge for the next time you grill. You’re kind of just basically making this mother marinade of deliciousness.

Some of the dishes in “Around the Fire” will be new to your regulars, right?

Gabi: We loved including recipes that sadly never made it onto the [menu at Ox]. And that’s because there’s limited real estate on our grill. As it stands there are about a dozen items that are cooked on the grill every day. And the vegetables and the seafood that we do on the grill tends to change all the time. But the meats — the skirt steak, morcilla sausage, the house-made chorizo — they just live there. There’s just not enough room to play around with other meats.

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Elaborate on that “other.”

Gabi: We like presenting certain things that you’ll probably have to source like the quail or the turkey butts. But we also enjoyed coming up with alternatives for the people who didn’t want to spend too much time trying to find the specialty items. The recipes we have for the specialty items have something that is basically infusing that protein with flavor. The maple-brined and grill-roasted turkey butt with cilantro-peanut relish and watermelon, for instance. That recipe works great with chicken thighs.

One thing you stress is that components for recipes can be interchangeable. Explain.

Gabi: What we found is that in each of those components is a really, really great element to put into other dishes. Like the cured and smoked beef tongue. The caper vinaigrette that goes with it would be really delicious, for example, with some grilled salmon. The sweetbread croutons are good on a salad. The tongue itself, if you’re going to go to all that work and there’s some left over, slice it thin and make delicious sandwiches. The ensalada rusa, a sort of delicious potato-and-beet salad, is a great accompaniment to anything that has been cooked on the grill.

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SuperBite is your newest restaurant. What’s a super-bite?

Greg: A tiny adventure in small bites. We’re providing something for people that will try to satisfy them and be a little bit over-the-top. You’re not committing to a large quantity of it. Like, the chowder. That’s a super-bite. In one spoonful you get a little bit of marrow, you get a little jalapeño, you get a piece of clam, you get some broth. You get a single bite of all those things. People lose their brains over it.

Gabi: Another example is the Little Gem lettuces salad with mozzarella milanesa, fried anchovy garlic vinaigrette, chopped Marcona almonds and avocado. The combination of textures. You’ve got the cool, crisp greens, the creamy avocado, then you got this hot fried mozzarella ball on top and the zesty salad dressing. There’s so much going on but it all makes sense in a single bite.

Greg, I read that in 2006 you had experience with a very different sort of super-bite: Eating two pounds of raw sweet Maui onions in two minutes. Details please.

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Greg: [Laughs] I’m a bit competitive. We lived in Maui for five years. One day I saw that they had an onion-eating contest and I decided to go for it. So I did. But I didn’t win that first year. And that really stuck with me. The next year I didn’t train, but I thought about it a lot. Then I entered the competition again and I just dominated. I ate two pounds of onions in two minutes.

And your strategy was?

Greg: You have to be careful because an onion is very watery. You bite it like an apple, chew it a couple times, but not too much because too much water will release, and then you just swallow it. You gotta get a rhythm. I won a hundred bucks and a Maui onion lei.

Do tourists from Argentina come to Ox, order some of your riffs on traditional dishes, and say, “What are you doing?”

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Greg: They have and there’s been times where they’ve been happy and there’s been times when they say, just straight up, “This isn’t the way that you do it.” But what’s funny is that every place we went to in Argentina we’d ask, “Is this just your version?” And they’d answer, “No, this is the best version. This is how you do it! This is the only right way.” We tried chimichurri and chorizo all over Argentina and every one was completely different. So, believe me, we feel more justified in the creative freedom that we’ve taken.

Gabi: But for every one person that says, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” we’ve had nine people say, “I love this.” We’ve had families from Argentina come in and at the end of their meal order another skirt steak to take home or another round of empanadas to smuggle into the hospital because grandma is there and she’s sick and flavors from home are going to make her feel better.

I understand that you have a word for customers who are having trouble with Ox’s no-reservations (except for large parties) policy.

Greg: “Hangry.” That’s when someone comes in to the restaurant and they are acting a little childish, a little grumpy. We say to each other “Oh gosh, they must be hangry. Sometimes there’s a wait at our restaurant and people get frustrated. They don’t want to wait.

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Gabi: They want food now. You might start off hungry, but as you wait and wait you start to get cranky and then you’re hangry.

Greg: When this happens we try to be as gracious as we can, show them hospitality, try to get them what they need as soon as possible. And they really start to relax and that hangry goes away pretty quickly. By the end they always say it was worth the wait.

Skirt steak with chimichurri sauce from "Around the Fire," by Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton.
Skirt steak with chimichurri sauce from “Around the Fire,” by Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )

GRILLED BEEF SKIRT STEAK WITH ONION MARINADE AND CHIMICHURRI

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50 minutes, plus marinating time. Serves 4

ONION MARINADE

1⁄2 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped

1 small garlic clove, peeled

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1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons water

2 pounds skirt steak, silver skin trimmed away

To make the onion marinade, in a blender combine the onion, garlic, oil, and water and blend until smooth. Put the skirt steak in a large resealable plastic bag or baking dish and pour in the onion mixture, coating both sides. Cover or wrap the meat well so the onion scent does not permeate your refrigerator; chill for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

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CHIMICHURRI

1/2 cup minced yellow onion

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

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1 teaspoon finely grated or minced garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

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1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

In a bowl or jar, combine the onion, parsley, oregano, garlic, salt, black pepper and red pepper. Add the oil and vinegar and mix well. Store covered and use before the herbs begin to turn brown, 3 to 5 days. This makes about 2 cups chimichurri

GRILLED SKIRT STEAK WITH CHIMICHURRI

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Marinated skirt steak

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Smoked sea salt, homemade or store-bought, for finishing

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1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Chimichurri, for serving (optional)

1. Heat a grill over medium-high heat.

2. Remove the steak from the marinade and season both sides with the kosher salt and pepper. Transfer the meat to the grill and cook until one side is well seared, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook for about 2 minutes more, for rare to medium-rare. At this point, remove the steak from the grill and rest for 2 minutes to allow the carryover heat to give it a more even doneness. Finally, return the steak to the grill and cook for 1 minute more per side (this guarantees this thin cut of steak will be served hot). (Add another minute of cooking on the second side for medium doneness.) Remove the skirt steak from the grill and rest 1 to 2 minutes before slicing and serving.

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3. Cut each steak along the grain into three sections. Turn each piece to slice against the grain at a 45-degree angle. Slice into 1⁄4-inch pieces on a slight bias against the grain. Transfer the meat to a warmed plate. Garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and smoked sea salt and serve with the chimichurri.

Each serving: Calories 697; Protein 50 grams; Carbohydrates 2 grams; Fiber 0; Fat 55 grams; Saturated fat 13 grams; Cholesterol 157 mg; Sugar 0; Sodium 602 mg

Note: Adapted from a recipe in “Around the Fire” by Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton.


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