SCHWENKER is a German term from the state of Saarland—a geopolitical nubbin in the west of the country—and it reduces even the most buttoned-down and correct to double entendres rich with hunched-over and furtive imagery.
It does not mean, "one who wanks with Rammstein in mind." A "schwenkfest" is not four Bavarian frat boys locked in a room with Kitti und Klaus-Uwe: Spritzfeier XVII. It is a harmless little word that comes from the verb "to swivel," and for our purposes, it refers to:
• A suspended, swiveling outdoor grill
• One who cooks using this grill
• A particular recipe for marinated pork, cooked on this grill
The design of a schwenker suggests that this sort of cooking device has been around since the Bronze Age, but as is typical, I hadn't heard of it until about a month ago, when Barnaby Tuttle of the Teutonic Wine Company started sending out press releases for his Schwenk PDX 2013 summer event series [see sidebar]. Quite by accident one evening, I ran into him stoking the coals of his schwenker on the patio of a local restaurant, and we got to chatting. One thing led to another—my mention of our summer grilling issue led to him loaning me one of the devices for my birthday party—and the very next Friday, he and his assistants dropped the medieval pile of iron, chain, and cable off on my front lawn. Mr. Tuttle then, true to his hospitable spirit, reached into his van, procured a bottle of Riesling from somewhere deep between the seats, and instructed me on how to marinate schwenkbraten with it.
Mentioning the assistants may imply that the thing is unwieldly. It is not. It's three pieces of rebar about six feet long, a metal cap (with a pulley beneath) that locks them together at the top as a tripod, and a circular grill that hangs down from the metal cap, on a retractable chain, between all the legs. You or your schwenkermeister adjusts the height of the grill using a cord that secures to one of the legs. I mentally calculate that it would take about eight minutes and $15 to find everything you need to make a schwenker at Lowe's, which is part of the reason this cooking technique intrigues me. If you have ever built an IKEA lamp or put sunglasses on a dog, you can build a schwenker.
From there, the contraption is placed over hot coals (I used one of those circular metal backyard firepits, but you can just build a fire on the ground) and grilling proceeds as normal, with a few noteworthy improvements:
Because the grill is suspended, you can "wind up" the cable and let it lazily spin over the coals, which eliminates hot spots and ensures more even cooking. Swinging the grill from side to side is also common practice, though using this technique too aggressively can lead to your guests watching you dump their dinner into the ashes.
The grill can be raised and lowered, so you can control how much heat your meat is getting, and you can also easily add more wood (or steal some coals for your smoker, which we wound up doing several times).
Because the primal equation of people + fire = universal party success, the schwenker attracts onlookers like moths to a candle. Unlike a standard one-man grill, your guests can do no harm by satisfying their irresistible urge to play with the thing while the food cooks, so it provides a busy social center and conversation piece. It also reduces the nervous cook's unwise urge to squash and flip and otherwise fiddle with the meat, because he can play with it in less-damaging ways.
Potential Difficulties of Schwenking
The open coal pit is not protected from wind, so the coals will burn through faster than with an enclosed Weber kettle or the like. I found myself rescuing the coals from extinction on more than one occasion, so careful fuel management—or, as my guests repeatedly suggested, a more experienced pit master—would be helpful.
Moving the unit during cooking can prove embarrassing, as the legs are prone to fall out of the cap, prompting you to hold the thing up with your forehead while you desperately try to keep the food from falling in the fire. Try not to do this.
Thanks to Newton's Third Law, sliding a spatula under a burger is challenging, because the grill just wants to swing away. But you shouldn't be grilling burgers anyway, you should be grilling schwenkbraten.
Recipe adapted from oral tradition
Prep time: 20 minutes (active), three days (marinating)
4 pounds boneless pork shoulder
4 pounds white or yellow onion, sliced fairly thin
1/2 cup German mustard (Dijon works too)
1/2 cup canola or other mild high-heat oil
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 bottle Riesling
1 tablespoon paprika
In a large bowl or non-reactive pot of at least 10 quarts, whisk the mustard, oil, garlic, and paprika.
Slice the shoulder into steaks about 1-inch thick. The shoulder roast, when untied, may unravel a bit, but stay the course and keep a consistent thickness.
Add the steaks to the marinade and turn them until coated. Add as many of the onions as will fill the bowl, and gently mix until the onions are also coated in the marinade.
Pour in the bottle of Riesling. Cover and let sit for three days in the refrigerator.
When your coals are hot, pour the mixture into a strainer and let the marinade run off. Separate the pork from the onions; put the onions into a sealed foil pouch for steaming/braising on the grill by themselves. Salt the meat to your liking.
Schwenk the meat about 10 minutes per side, or until just a faint trace of pink remains at center. Carryover cooking (after you remove the meat from the fire and let it rest for a few minutes) will finish the job. These were cooked over a three-second fire, which is defined as: a hand held four inches over the grate has a hard time staying there longer than three seconds.
Slice the meat and serve with the onions. This works well as a filling for rolls or flatbread. The sweetness of the Riesling and sourness of the mustard will have permeated deep into the flesh, creating an unusual and unmistakable flavor that is delicious with wood-fire cooking.
Schwenk PDX 2013 Schedule
Want to watch someone else schwenk before you try it yourself? Barnaby and Olga Tuttle of the Teutonic Wine Company have organized a summer schwenker series, where local restaurants host an evening of grilled food, paired with the Tuttles' imported Mosel Rieslings. Three of the events have already passed, but several remain. Menu and prices vary for each restaurant. Visit schwenkpdx.com for more information.
6/29—The Hop & Vine
1914 N Killingsworth 5-9 pm
7/13—Raven & Rose
1331 SW Broadway
2838 SE Belmont
3925 NE MLK
Brunch (9 am-2 pm)
1632 NW Thurman
1221 NW 21st
5027 NE 42nd
537 SE Ash
527 SW 12th
6031 SE Belmont