Cast Iron Campfire Cook-Off!
EVERYTHING TASTES BETTER WHEN COOKED OVER A SMOKY CAMPFIRE UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SKY. EVEN HOT DOGS AND CANNED BEANS.
For avid campers Rebecca and Frank Waters, this is how their story begins: on a New Hampshire campground, twenty years back. “When Jennifer (story photographer and Rebecca’s daughter Jennifer Bakos) and her siblings were little, it was all hot dogs, hamburgers and pasta when we camped,” says Waters. Then, they met friends Linda and Ed Carlisle, who introduced them to the joys of Dutch oven campfire cooking. “They were the ones who’d have a stew cooking over the fire in a pot hanging from a tripod,” says Waters, while the rest of the campers were waving skewered dogs over licking flames.
As their food preferences changed, Waters’ kids became more and more interested in the Carlisle’s gourmet meals, and they eventually decided to get in on the game, purchasing some basic equipment-Dutch ovens, tongs and a charcoal chimney-and adapting gourmet recipes to campfire cooking.
Over the years the two families have attempted stews, breads, blueberry cobbler, chicken potpie and even crispy duck. The key is preparing charcoal briquets in a metal chimney, and then distributing them under the Dutch oven and on top of the lid to simulate a gas or electric oven. The more coals you add, the hotter it gets. Charcoal briquets work great because they hold heat well and maintain a consistent temperature over long periods of time.
“It’s sort of like a crockpot; you can set something on the coals, go out on the kayak, and when you come back, dinner is ready,” says Waters, a confident, seasoned professional.
They’ve even experimented with stacking smaller Dutch ovens on top of larger ones, allowing them to bake side dishes or garlic bread while their braise or stew is bubbling away underneath, creating valuable time and energy efficiencies.
These days, when the families camp together, they declare a Cast Iron Cook-off, all in the name of a little friendly competition. They plan elaborate weekend-long feasts, sometimes even inventing complementary craft cocktails, if that’s what it takes to win.
It’s great to be prepared, up to a point, but Waters admits that some of her favorite dishes (like s’mores pie) were the ones they developed on the spot, using what they had to make it work. “That’s what it’s all about, just experimenting and having fun with it. Nothing has failed us yet, and we’ve done a lot of experimenting,”
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
4-or 6-qt (10-or 12-inch) cast iron Dutch oven with feet and a flat lid
12-inch cast iron skillet (optional)
Tongs for lifting the lid
Heavy-duty oven mitt
Newspaper and matches or other fire starter
A fire ring or cleared area, bricks, concrete, or sand for cooking safely
PREPARING THE CHARCOAL
1. Secure a safe cooking area in a designated fire ring, a sandy spot or on a concrete or brick block.
2. Lay down a few squares of heavy-duty foil, cover with a few sheets of balled up newspaper and slide the chimney over the top.
3. Pour up to 50 briquets into the chimney, ignite and burn for 15 minutes, or until the briquets turn a mottled gray color. Transfer (with tongs) to the Dutch oven for cooking.
4. For long-term cooking (think pulled pork, braises and stews), switch out the coals every hour or so. Burn the next batch in the chimney fifteen minutes before you need it. When ready to use, push the other coals out of the way to make room for the new ones. Coals are unusable when they turn white and crumble apart.
STRETCHING IT OUT
No one wants to head back out to the grocery store once they’re settled into the campsite. Here are a few ways to stretch leftovers through the weekend:
1. Heat milk and brown or white sugar, add crumbled leftover cornbread and sliced fruit for a spin on breakfast porridge.
2. Pile pulled pork into flour or corn tortillas with sliced peppers, onions and shredded cheese and fold into foil packets. Place directly over hot coals, turning occasionally, until heated through.
3. Cook cubed sweet potatoes with water in a covered skillet until tender, mash and combine with a little oil, leftover pulled pork, salt, pepper and any spices on hand, to make a pork and sweet potato hash.
4. Thickly slice leftover cornbread, pan fry with butter until golden brown, drizzle with maple syrup and sprinkle with cinnamon for a sweet treat.
Resources for more information or for other cooking ideas: Sunset: The Great Outdoors Cookbook Cooking Outdoors with Gary House (http://www.cooking-outdoors.com) Eartheasy: Solutions for Sustainable Living