Thursday, November 03, 2005

Campfire Cooking

It's summer, and for summer my mind turns toward camping. My family used to camp all of the time, and the scent of forest is a sure path to memory.

And I still remember some of the recipes from when we went camping. Admittedly, in most of the West you can't have open flames right now, but there are still some places that allow fires in firepits, and quite honestly, this is not backpacking cooking. This is campsite-with-parking cooking. This is also the first night of camping, or at most the next day.

To begin with, you need a good hot bed of coals. Not charcoal, coals. Do you know how to build a fire? Remember that before you build your fire, you should have the means to put it out nearby. This means a shovel and a bucket of sand or water at the minimum. When you do put it out, you should get it to the point where you can stick your hand in the coals.

If it seems like I'm harping on this, please realize that the current state of our forests is best described as "tinderbox." I've also fought a very small wildfire that threatened to become a very large one if it weren't dealt with, and with people who didn't know how to put out a fire. If you're going to play with fire, know what you're doing.

That said, a contained fire is good for cooking in. Many campsites have stone- or metal-lined firepits available, and the simple task of raking duff— the loose soil that is mostly made of decomposed pine needles— and branches away from the pit is more than sufficient for safety. The most efficient type of fire for getting coals is a teepee-style fire. See the link above. It burns hot and fast and gets you a bed of coals within twenty minutes or so.

Then it's time for your Dutch oven. A Dutch oven is cast iron and is designed to sit on and in hot coals. If you're going camping with one, try and find a sturdy iron hook to go with it. Some fireplace pokers work well for this job. The appropriate hook should be able to catch the handle of the pot itself, as well as being able to catch and hold the handle of the lid in a steady fashion.

If you've put the coals on top, you don't want to accidentally dump them in your food.

On a practical note, if you really don't want to clean the inside of your Dutch oven, a lining of aluminum foil works farily well, especially if you press it firmly against the sides to smooth it out. Be careful when serving so you don't end up with foil slivers in your food.

Okay, now for the recipes. First off comes a wonderful heart-attack, the kind of thing that sounds appalling unless you've been hiking all day at altitude, in which case it sounds wonderful.

Corned Beef Hash
You will need:
Two large cans or four small cans or corned beef hash, with one can that has had its label removed and the outside of the can washed well
Fresh eggs (you can have eggs in a cooler without ice for one or two days without risking anything if you bought them the day you left)

Put the corned beef hash into the Dutch oven and smooth out the top. Use the bottom of the cleaned can to press regular depressions into the hash. Carefully crack an egg into each depression. Cover the oven and place it in the coals. Put coals on top to cook faster. Check starting ten minutes after placing in the coals; your dinner is done when the eggs are firmly set and the hash is warmed through. It's overdone if the edges are black. Try not to do that.

Serves about six, fewer if there are teenagers involved.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
You will need:
4 Tbsp. butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 can pineapple rings (you may have extra)
Maraschino cherries (optional)
Yellow cake mix

Melt the butter in the Dutch oven. Run it up the sides; it will help the cake to release. Sprinkle the brown sugar across the bottom. Carefully place pineapple rings across the bottom as evenly as you can. Save the juice. If using cherries, place one each in the centers of the pineapple rings.

Mix the cake according to the box directions except substitute pineapple juice for up to 2/3 of the recommended amount of water. Pour over the pineapple rings; cover the oven and place in the coals. Cover the oven with coals; bake for about 45 minutes or until the top of the cake springs back when touched.

If you've brought a cake tester along, more power to you. However, err toward the slightly undercooked side, as iron holds heat and your cake will still cook a bit once removed from the heat.

Remove the oven from the coals, crack the lid, and let it sit for ten minutes. Run a spatula around the outside edge to loosen the cake. Put parchment paper or foil along the inside of the lid, replace the lid, turn the oven upside-down and pull off the bottom. With any luck, the cake will come out in one piece, but remember that fragments are always tasty too!

There are hundreds more Dutch oven recipes at sites such as Byron's Dutch Oven Recipes,, and the MacScouter.

However, I don't want you to think that a Dutch oven is the ONLY way to cook camp food. Cooking on a stick is always a popular method, though please please please do NOT use a stick you just found unless you are entirely certain of what it comes from. There are several plants whose wood can impart poison to cooked food, the most dangerous of which is oleander, a popular decorative shrub which is highly toxic and can be fatal. Use toasting forks for your marshmallows. My family's favorite trick was to use bamboo branches from our home stand; when the end got inevitably sticky, you could cut it down with a pocketknife and it would still be slim and smooth.

But perhaps a better trick for kids is a hobo pack. Yes, I know that's very un-PC of me, but that's what it's called.

Hobo Pack
You will need:
Thick aluminum foil (or a double or triple thickness of the thinner variety)
Ground beef
Salt, pepper, and other favorite spices

This is the simplest trick of all. You put your beef and your thinly-sliced vegetables all muddled together on the foil, spice it, wrap it in the foil, double the edges and crimp them, and place in the coals. They'll cook in a short period of time— check after seven minutes, but they should take about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Baked Potato
Prick lots of holes in the potato. Wrap in aluminum foil and cover with coals. The potato will bake in forty minutes to an hour, depending on its size. Serve with salt, butter and pepper.

And for dessert, there's the Ice-Creamless Banana Split
You will need:
Aluminum foil
Bananas in their peels
Chocolate chips
Mini marshmallows

Take a knife and carefully cut a slit in the banana through the peel. Stuff it with chocolate chips and mini marshmallows. Wrap the business in foil and place in the coals; it should be done in five to ten minutes or until the child's patience runs out.

Huh. I want to go camping.

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