Marcus Bawdon sings the praises of the new breed of small, portable, relatively inexpensive wood-fired ovens: perfect for creating sizzling seafood al fresco.
I have fond memories of Portuguese sardines, served fresh from the fire right on the beach, with lovely blistered skin and really juicy flesh. But I’ve found it hard to recreate this magical balance on a standard BBQ at home: the heat just doesn’t seem to work right. It’s much better to cook them in a wood-fired oven: this gives you a ferocious dry heat that chars the skin without drying out the fish out because it cooks so quickly. Plus you get a wonderful smoky flavour from the burning wood.
Wood-fired ovens have traditionally been very expensive to buy and install in your garden – unless you put the extra effort in and build one yourself. But there are some terrific, much cheaper alternatives around now. I’ve been using the Uuni 2S (pictured above), which comes in at under £200. It’s a lot smaller than the traditional kind, and portable too, which means you can take it on picnics or to the beach, just like a regular BBQ.
Another big plus is the time it takes to get it up to cooking temperature. A traditional wood-fired oven might take an hour or two to heat up, requiring a couple of bucket loads of wood in the process; whereas the Uuni 2S takes about 20 minutes and uses only a handful of wood pellets.
It’s really easy to assemble too: it took me about 10 minutes to put mine together. The new 2016 2S model has a stone base, which regulates the temperature better, and the oven itself is more efficient, staying hotter for longer. All you have to do to get it going is load up the hopper with pellets and light it with a flamer lighter. While I have got a “proper” wood-fired oven – which I spent a few days building myself – I can’t see myself using it much any more, except when I have loads of people round for a really big cook.
Look out for other similar products coming on to the scene too. Roccbox just completed a crowdfunding campaign in April, raising $1,159,240 – more than 1,000% of its target. You can now order its UK-designed oven online. It costs a bit more than the Uuni 2S – $559 plus shipping – but it looks a bit snazzier, and it has the option of gas, rather than wood, for convenience (but I reckon is missing the point).
The obvious thing to cook in one of these cute little modern ovens is pizza, which is pretty much what they were designed for. But for me, seafood comes a close second, especially if you fire up one up on the beach – having the sea in sight makes all the difference. All kinds of seafood work a treat, including salmon fillets, tuna steaks and shellfish, such as scallops (the bigger the better). But those Portuguese-style sardines I mentioned at the start are my current favourite: they’re super quick, super easy, and they have a real taste of beach life about them.
Just pre-heat a cast-iron skillet for 5 minutes in the wood-fired oven. Then drop in some gutted sardines and drizzle with a little olive oil. Sprinkle over a pinch of coarse sea salt and black pepper, add a couple of lemon wedges and a little chopped flat leaf parsley, then pop the skillet into the oven for a few minutes to crisp the skin and cook through.
Sardines are so small that a few minutes is all they need at these temperatures. If you’re not sure, take them out sooner rather than later: peel back the little fillets to check they are opaque and cooked through. If they’re not quite done, put them back for another minute and try again. Then squeeze the charred lemon over them and serve with a green salad and a cold glass of crisp white wine.
Marcus Bawdon is a dedicated foodie and barbecue enthusiast who blogs at CountryWoodSmoke. He’s also founder of UK barbecue magazine UK BBQ, and author of the iPad-friendly e-cookbook Smoky & The Woodpit, which features 20 meat, seafood, flatbread, pizza and pud recipes – all made on the barbie. It’s available via Books on iTunes for £1.99.
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