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Dinner in the Fireplace

I'm opening the fireplace screen door, and now I'm putting the steak in the fireplace, right on top of the embers. On tonight's menu: Dirty Steak, or steak cooked on wood coals.

As with so many great culinary discoveries, this one was an accident. Johanne Killeen and George Germon, co-owners of the famed Al Forno in Providence, R.I. first put it on their menu in 1985. Killeen says that one very busy night at the restaurant, Germon unknowingly dropped a steak in the fire. When he finally found and tasted it, a dish was born.

Of course, cooking meat on a fire is as old as -- well, as old as fire itself. But for those of us who aren't in the Scouts or living on the range, it's one of those ideas that's new all over again.

Ever since I first heard of Al Forno's Dirty Steak, I've been looking forward to trying it. It sounded dramatic, exciting, sexy even -- and finally, the night to make it had arrived. So I bought the meat and got out my checklist: Cord of wholesome hardwood, delivered and stacked (by me)? Check. Extra-long tongs? Check. Salad? Chocolate cake for dessert? Ready and waiting.

Earlier, a friend had come over to share this momentous occasion with us, and as the three of us waited for the fire to die down a little, somehow our discussion turned to couples she knew who'd "fallen out of love." As I listened to her tales of heartache -- and a searing story of midnight calls from a desperate married man -- I kept an eye on the fireplace. Soon I saw that the wood had burned down to what I thought was the right size. Stories of infidelity had to take a back seat to dinner.

At first I had a lot of questions and self-doubt: Are the coals too small? Is the fire too big? And what, exactly, does "falling out of love" mean? I opened the fireplace screen door and nervously placed the steaks right on the coals.

They popped and crackled -- a little, anyway -- but there was no huge blaze of flames, no fireworks. How disappoint-- I mean, different from what I'd expected. As the steaks hissed, we resumed our talk of lives upended by affairs and divorce.

Fifteen minutes later, after both cooking and resting, the steak was ready to eat. I took it into the kitchen, cut into it, and saw, with relief, that it was gorgeous: charred on the outside, red and glistening inside.

That first tentative bite revealed a smoky, tender and perfectly cooked steak: restaurant-quality, without a doubt. Plus, it had been fun and surprisingly easy to make.

But by no means was it -- you know -- breathtakingly good. It didn't taste, say, like a lustful, illicit encounter in a hotel room. What I mean to say, then, is that it wasn't passion on a plate, as I'd imagined. But it was good. It was more than good. It was utterly delicious. Just not like that.

No, Dirty Steak wasn't quite what I'd expected, or maybe even hoped for. But it turned out to be just what I'd needed on this midwinter, midlife night. It may have cooked quietly, but it still sizzled.

After we pulled the steaks out, we threw a couple more logs on and ate in front of a blaze. I knew then that even if the fire almost dies out sometimes, as long as there's still at least a small flame, we can always rekindle it.

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Betsy Block