Photography by Curtis Comeau
Raising four children didn’t leave Colette Stasiewich much time for puttering in a garden or lounging on a patio, but that was then. Twenty-five years and a newly constructed home later, a peaceful backyard deck and patio with a garden were must-haves.
The space also had to accommodate her love of cooking. No matter how busy she got, Stasiewich always found time to cook for her family. So, when she and her husband, James Stasiewich, began work on their backyard’s landscaping and design three years ago, an outdoor kitchen felt as natural to her as that garden. The L shaped kitchen on the deck surrounds a dining area, and is outfitted with a gas barbecue, two separate burners and lots of counter and storage space. She says: “If we lived in Arizona, we would have had a sink and fridge, but not in Edmonton.” (Three guesses why.)
The garden may have been a priority for Colette, but it wasn’t for James. “He just wanted a place to sit,” she says with a chuckle. But in fact, James did harbour a must have of his own. She recalls that for the patio pathway, he sourced the finest boulders that he could get his hands on – and that’s not just an expression; he hand picked each stone. “My husband looked at piles of rocks all over the place, and when he did find a person to buy from, he had to go pick the right ones,” she adds.
Thus, the couple had 110,000 pounds of Arizona Moss Rock shipped from Phoenix, which you would think must have literally cost the Earth. “It was actually much, much cheaper than buying it here,” says Stasiewich. The transportation was inexpensive as well, because James regularly sends trucks to the U.S. as a course of doing business as a manufacturer of products for the oil patch. So, rather than having them come back empty, he sent them by his rock pile and loaded them up with stone for the journey back to Canada. Stasiewich believes the cost was about a quarter of the price it would have been if they purchased it here, though she recognizes that number wouldn’t be nearly so impressive if they had to pay the full cost of shipping.
The couple may have created a little slice of Eden, but you’ll find no forbidden fruit here.
“Everything in the garden is edible,” says Stasiewich with a note of pride. “It’s the herbs that I absolutely love. The fresh basil and the oregano and the dill, the chives, the mint … and we had quite a variety of lettuces.” She is also planting more tomatoes this year in pots or barrels as a way of extending the garden space. She also plans to have rosemary – a draping variety that drips romantically like a vine over the ledge of a long stone planter.
Though the outdoor kitchen stands poised to grill, boil or steam these herbs and vegetables on demand, her favourite way to enjoy them is fresh out of the garden. “You can pick some lettuce, sprinkle it with a few herbs and you have this burst of flavour with every bite. You don’t even have to do anything else … maybe just a drizzle of olive oil.”
With such culinary ambitions, you might think that colossal stone structure on the patio is a pizza oven, but it’s simply a wood-burning fireplace. (In fact, you don’t need a pizza oven to make perfect pizza outdoors. See the side note on how to mimic wood-fired crust on the barbecue.)
Stasiewich notes, “We’ve always wanted a fire, and it also provides privacy for the sitting area.” Sure, but there are simpler (and certainly less costly) ways to do this. Why choose to build such a majestic monument? Well, the truth is they didn’t choose it so much as it was graciously bestowed upon them.
“The fireplace was built by a master craftsman from Russia, who is also my husband’s cousin,” says Stasiewich. “About 25 years ago, James helped him immigrate to Canada, and his cousin told him, ‘One of these days, I will repay you.'” This man used to build kilns in Russia, where it was more about making things functional than fancy, but he started building these beautiful fireplaces upon coming to Canada. So when the couple was planning their patio, they got in touch with him and asked if he could help. The old guy, who was in his 70s, replied, “I will make you the nicest fireplace I’ve ever built.”
Even at his age, this guy was a force, according to Stasiewich, “He was amazing. That man worked from morning until night. I would wake up and he was already here – and it takes him an hour to drive to our place,” she says. He kept this up for an entire summer, laying the pathway flagstone as well as building the fireplace. “It’s pretty grand,” she says. “It would have cost an absolute fortune if we had to pay the regular wage by the hour. He was still well-paid, but he also did us a favour.”
The traditional, Old-World look and feel of that fireplace, and the patio in general, is a seamless extension of their home’s interior. “When we built our house, my intention was to have it look like it was 100 years old,” says Stasiewich. Halfway through construction, they met interior designer David McElheran, who advised them on how to achieve this in their interior dcor and out on the patio. “David is so wonderful for opinions on how or if it’s all going to work together,” she adds.
Their backyard took a couple of years to complete, so last summer was the first time the family could use their outdoor space and use it they did; they were out there nearly every day. “It’s been a really long process,” says Stasiewich. A landscape designer gave them a starting point and, from there, it was a collaboration between the homeowners, McElheran, the Russian craftsman and whoever else wanted to toss in ideas.
Stasiewich notes, “It was an experiment for all of us. Once the stone was put down, it just kind of grew.” Yet, when asked if she’d do anything differently, Stasiewich can think of only one thing: She’d leave the stone where it was and ship the house. “I’d build it in Arizona,” she says with a smirk.
Pizza on the Grill
Though it’s no contest for ambience, you can still have an al fresco pizza party without forking out for an elaborate pizza oven. Snip a few fresh herbs from your garden (so easy to grow, even in containers) and crank up the grill …
1. Put your pizza stone* on the grill before you spark it. The stone should heat up gradually with the barbecue. If you put a cold stone on a hot grill, it will crack.
2. If you prefer, you can MacGyver a smoker box and place it on your barbecue’s heat diffuser. Wrap wood chips – presoaked for two hours; apple wood chips work well – in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Seal the edges and poke a few holes in the packet to let the smoke escape.
3. Once you’ve got your stone on the grill, crank that baby up as high as it will go. If your barbecue hits 370C, that’s the magic number for crispy golden crust and caramelized toppings. (Don’t oil your stone. This will only turn it black and produce such billows of black smoke that your neighbours might think you’re aiming to elect a new Pope.)
4. Prepare your pizza dough, or buy fresh premade dough from the Italian Centre. With a rolling pin, flatten it into a round shape and add your toppings – but be careful not to overload it – two or three is ideal. Otherwise, your crust could burn by the time your toppings are cooked through.
5. Lay down parchment paper, generously sprinkle with cornmeal and place your pizza on top of it. This should be done seconds before transferring to the barbecue (you’ll understand why once you read the next step).
6. To get your uncooked pizza onto the hot stone, you’ll have to pull a little stunt. Like the magician who yanks a tablecloth out from under a table setting with notwine glass disturbed, this is basically your technique for sliding the parchment out from under the sticky dough and transferring it onto the stone. The trick here is cornmeal, and there’s a knack to it. At the very least, it could provide some good entertainment for some.
7. Turn your grill down to 320C (so you don’t scorch your crust) and cook with the lid closed until the crust is crispy and the cheese is gooey (about three to four minutes). If you have to check whether it’s done, take a quick peek so you don’t lose too much heat. When your pizza is done, slide it off the stone and onto a large cutting board. Toss on another pie, or gradually cool on the grill before removing. Enjoy!
*Follow manufacturer’s instructions on care for your pizza stone.