WARREN, Vt. – The Pitcher Inn’s executive chef, Jacob Ennis, is poking about in the floor-to-ceiling red brick fireplace in the Vermont inn’s elegant 275 Main restaurant.
Breakfast service is over and before preparations for dinner begin, he is, “playing with fire,” as Ennis puts it, grinning impishly.
His face reddens as he bends into the hot hearth to add a log, but he isn’t tending the fire: This is hearth cooking, something that would have taken place in the 17th or 18th century.
Though the fireplace looks like it was transported from an episode of Starz’s time-traveling epic romance “Outlander” (which returns Sunday), both it and the rest of the Pitcher Inn were built in 1997 in keeping with the site’s history as a Civil War-era lodging house. Naturally, that aesthetic includes big, welcoming fireplaces, the heart of any New England hostelry.
The fireplace has big antique hooks and ironware, used for cooking centuries ago. But in Ennis’ hands, they’re not just for decoration.
“From the very first day I walked in and saw the fireplace, I said, ‘I am going to cook on that fire’,” says the chef, who worked at top dining destinations like Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs and Nantucket’s The Wauwinet, before taking over this renowned Relais et Chateaux inn’s kitchen last spring.
Last fall, Ennis added a grill, spit, and cast-iron cauldrons, and developed his “Fire to Fork” menu.
“I use the hooks for things like roasting a trussed chicken. I give it a twist to rotate it and leave it to cook slowly,” he says. “We will make a soup over the fire and serve it straight to guests. It’s also nice for mulled wine or hot cider,” he adds.
Today, he’s roasting vegetables for his new winter menu: roasted peppers for a prawn dish. roasted root vegetables to fill pot pies and accompany handmade cappellacci pasta and fennel, which tops a salad of spinach, toasted hazelnuts, and citrus. Cooked just long enough to become tender, the fennel has a superb subtle smokiness. “That’s been very popular,” Ennis says.
A pungent piney aroma soon fills the air as he uses a switch of thyme to brush each vegetable with oil.
“I recently used rosemary with beef,” he recalls, “and I lightly roasted some herbs on the fire to use in a smoked herb chimichurri.”
He puts another log on the amber embers. The fire jumps into action and a high flame licks at the basted vegetables. Ennis doesn’t mind a little charring, especially on the halved peppers and butternut squashes.
“I can let the squash get quite black because I’m going to scoop out the flesh. Sometimes I will cook in the coals. In the fall, I put seasoned beets in a pan and buried them in the coals and left it to cook. It gave them an awesome smokiness,” he enthuses.
Ennis takes care, though: Too much smokiness can overwhelm a dish.
“I want the vegetables to still taste like vegetables and not be overpoweringly smoky. Meats can take it and I leave them to slow-cook for hours,” he says.
Not all of his forays into fire-to-fork cuisine have been successful.
One experiment with the oven embedded in the side of the chimney – something quite common in 18th-century homes – resulted in the bricks becoming too hot and cracking.
“The oven had never been used. I’m waiting for replacement bricks and will use it at a lower temperature,” he says sheepishly.
By now, a delicious, smoky cooking aroma has filtered throughout the inn.
“Guests wander in and are very interested in what I’m doing,” Ennis says. “We want to be authentic to Vermont and we use Vermont ingredients as much as we can, and it doesn’t get more Vermont than a big roaring fire in winter.”
About Pitcher Inn
275 Main Street, Warren, VT 05674
Telephone: (802) 496-6350