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A Fire Master's Al Fresco Labor Day Feast

Patagonian chef Francis Mallmann shares recipes for rustic grilled chicken and fig and burrata salad
Photo by: Santiago Soto Monllor
Pounding chicken breasts thin allows the meat to cook evenly without drying out.

Christine Dalton
Posted: August 28, 2015

With summer’s end visible on the horizon, it’s once again time for schoolchildren to lament the return of math homework and sun-worshipping beachgoers to bemoan the descending temperatures. Food and wine lovers, however, have reason to celebrate the transition between the seasons. The end of summer begets plentiful ripe produce, and the slight drop in heat and humidity makes cooking around a fire all the more enjoyable during a Labor Day celebration.

For chef Francis Mallmann, outdoor cooking is the secret to successful entertaining. “You set a fire outside and you put 20 chairs, and people sit around it and immediately there’s a connection between all of them through the fire,” he says. “There’s a feeling of happiness.”

The Patagonian chef built his career atop an open flame, and his success speaks to the appeal of rustic, sophisticated fire cooking. Although he was classically trained in French cuisine, Mallmann has spent the past 20 years exploring centuries-old cooking techniques used by gauchos, or Argentinean cowboys. “I picked those old tools,” he explains, “and I started constructing, very slowly, a language of cooking with fires and being outdoors.”

His return to tradition is on display in his four acclaimed restaurants in South America—Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, 1884 Restaurante and Siete Fuegos, both in Argentina’s Mendoza wine region, and El Garzon in Uruguay—and on the pages of his cookbook, Mallmann on Fire. From this outdoor cooking guide, he shares two recipes for a laid-back, al fresco Labor Day celebration: fig salad with burrata and basil, and smashed chicken breast in a potato crust.

As evidenced by the simplicity of these recipes, Mallmann’s style of cooking is minimalist and seasonal. “I think you have to respect the products,” he explains. “If I’m going to eat figs, I want to eat figs. I want to have a couple of figs, and I want them to be delicious.” Figs are at their peak in the United States through October, and Mallmann advises choosing fruit that is “very, very ripe.” To prepare the salad, he opts to use his hands to break apart the figs, cheese and basil: “The more we can use our hands and less the knife, the better for the food and it looks more beautiful.”

For the main dish, Mallmann seeks to remedy a common grilling problem. “Dried-out chicken is the most sad thing,” he sighs. To keep his poultry juicy, he pounds the chicken breasts thin, “not as thin as a paillard, but a finger thick,” and covers them with an “overcoat” of thin potato slices. The dressed chicken cooks slowly in a large cast-iron pan or a traditional Argentinean chapa, a sheet of metal set over a fire, and is flipped halfway through. This way, the potatoes on the top and chicken skin on the bottom become crunchy and crispy, while the meat itself stays tender. Succulent late-summer tomatoes top the savory creation.

To aid in the flip, Mallmann advises using the removable bottom of a tart pan. “The round shape makes it easier to slide it under the potatoes in a circular scooping motion, which helps the potatoes stick together and remain on the chicken.” If you don’t have a tart pan handy, one or two wide spatulas would also work.

When it comes to wine, Mallmann stays true to his adventurous spirit rather than relying on traditional pairings. “When you’re eating something extremely delicious and you have this delicious wine, even if they don’t work together well, I like a clash in your mouth,” he says. “I like when they’re sort of competing to convince you who is the best.”

He also considers the setting when choosing a wine. “Is it a lunch? Is it dinner? What is my mood? How does the table look? Are we in the sun?” He muses, “I think all those things affect taste and the way we eat.” Mallmann proposes a range of options, from a California Cabernet to a “naughty, concentrated” Malbec to a crisp Albariño to a juicy Pinot Noir. Ultimately, he settles on the latter two options as the best complements to this end-of-summer feast, but urges home cooks to heed their own tastes. “I respect somebody who sits at the table and says, ‘I want to eat this with a glass of vodka.’ If that’s your happiness, do it.”


Labor Day Menu

Recipes adapted from Mallmann On Fire by Francis Mallmann, with Peter Kaminsky (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014.

Fig Salad With Burrata and Basil

  • 4 large fresh figs
  • 1 burrata, about 7 ounces
  • 12 large fresh basil leaves, torn
  • Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

1. Tear the figs open and arrange them in a wide shallow bowl.

2. Pat the burrata dry, tear it into 4 large pieces and nestle them among the torn figs. Tear the basil leaves into pieces and scatter over the figs and cheese.

3. Season to taste with salt, pepper, lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Serves 4.

Smashed Chicken Breast in a Potato Crust With Tomato and Arugula Salad

  • 1 whole boneless chicken breast, skin on, about 1 pound
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 2 Idaho (baking) potatoes, scrubbed
  • About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • About 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large ripe tomato, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1⁄2 small red onion, sliced very thin
  • 1 small bunch arugula, tough stems removed

1. Lay the chicken skin-side down on a work surface and pound it with a mallet to a thickness of about 3⁄4 inch. Trim off any ragged edges. Season generously with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes.

2. Slice the potatoes paper-thin on a mandoline. (Do not rinse or wipe them—you want to retain the starch.) Arrange an overlapping circle of potato slices around the top edge of the chicken, extending about 1⁄3 inch over the edge. Working toward the center, continue until you have a spiraling layer of potato slices covering the entire surface of the chicken. Press down firmly on the potatoes with the palm of your hand to set them in place.

3. Heat a chapa or a large cast-iron griddle over medium heat. Brush the hot surface generously with olive oil and dot it with half the butter. When the butter melts and begins to foam, slide the bottom of a metal tart pan beneath the chicken to lift it and invert it, potato side down, onto the hot chapa. Tuck any stray potato slices back in, and cook, undisturbed, for about 12 minutes; watch the edges of the potatoes from the side as they soften, curl and start to release from the hot surface, becoming crisp and brown on the bottom. Lower the heat if necessary to prevent burning, and add more butter or oil to the chapa as it is absorbed by the potatoes.

4. When a bamboo skewer pierces the potatoes easily, they are cooked through. Season the chicken skin with salt and pepper, then carefully slide the metal disk underneath the potatoes in the same direction as the spiral, using a deliberate, circular scooping motion to keep the potatoes in line, and flip the chicken over. Cook for about 8 minutes more, blotting up excess fat with a paper towel as necessary, or adding dots of butter or oil if the griddle seems dry. When the chicken is cooked through but still juicy, slide the disk under it again and transfer it to a platter.

5. Meanwhile, toss the tomato, onion and arugula together in a bowl with a light drizzle of olive oil. Arrange the salad on top of the chicken, and serve cut into wedges like a pizza. Serves 2.

Note: Mallmann advises, “If you’re going to make, for example, six of them for a group of friends, then you want to have two very large pans and have three in each. Don’t ever let them touch each other while they’re cooking. They can’t be compressed into a pan. They will start boiling and they won’t get a crust.”

Recommended Value Pinot Noirs

Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More wines can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.

STOLLER Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2013 Score: 92 | $30
Sleek, taut and focused, layering cherry, raspberry, smoke and mineral notes on a refreshing frame that lets the flavors glide into a long and expressive finish. Drink now through 2023. 7,475 cases made.—H.S.

AMICI Pinot Noir Sonoma County Olema 2013 Score: 91 | $20
This red offers a lively, refreshing and complex mix of snappy wild berry and raspberry flavors that are firm and vibrant, ending long, clean and complex. Drink now through 2020. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. 6,000 cases made.—J.L.

MAYSARA Pinot Noir McMinnville Jamsheed Momtazi Vineyard 2012 Score: 91 | $25
Soft and generous, offering dark berry, cherry, floral and roasted meat flavors, finishing with hints of fresh spices and lightly grippy tannins. Drink now through 2022. 4,011 cases made.—H.S.

KINGS RIDGE Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2012 Score: 89 | $18
Fresh and lively, with dark fruit notes playing against a springy bed of light tannins, lingering gently, giving off hints of spearmint and spice. Drink now through 2018. 15,500 cases made.—H.S.

PALI WINE CO. Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County Huntington 2013 Score: 89 | $23
Light smoky oak adds dimension to the rich core of wild berry and raspberry flavors, which are pure, clean and well-focused. Ends with a persistent, lingering aftertaste. Drink now. 3,861 cases made.—J.L.

Recommended Value Albariños

ABACELA Albariño Umpqua Valley 2014 Score: 89 | $21
Vivid, lively and appealing, with lemony apple and grapefruit flavors, tripping lightly over refined acidity and finishing with presence. Drink now. 1,758 cases made.—H.S.

ADEGAS GRAN VINUM Albariño Rias Baixas Nessa 2014 Score: 89 | $17
Pear, apple and lime flavors mingle in this broad-shouldered white. Features a firm texture, supported by crisp acidity, and stays focused through the clean finish. Can match with richer foods. Drink now through 2016. 7,100 cases made.—T.M.

LÍCIA Albariño Rias Baixas 2013 Score: 89 | $16
Savory notes of blanched almond and quinine balance the peach and tangerine flavors in this focused white, with lively acidity and a fresh, minerally finish. Drink now. 11,600 cases made.—T.M.

BODEGAS RAMÓN BILBAO Albariño Rias Baixas 2014 Score: 88 | $15
The generous texture carries peach, kumquat, almond and light briny notes in this expressive white. Lively acidity keeps this balanced. Fruity and refreshing. Drink now. 30,000 cases made.—T.M.

BURGÁNS Albariño Rias Baixas 2014 Score: 88 | $14
Crisp acidity gives this juicy white a sharp edge, but broader flavors of peach, kumquat and honeysuckle blossom show on the palate. Focused and juicy. Drink now. 22,000 cases imported.—T.M.

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