Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Campfire Kitchen

With the beautiful summer weather in full swing, Seattleites are fleeing the city in droves for the cool and peaceful forests right on our doorstep. But does the thought of camping induce a mild panic at the thought of having to survive on granola and beef jerky for a weekend? Are your Eagle Scout badges a little dusty… or non-existent? Carla Emery helps sharpen those rusty fire-starting skills to help get you out on the open trail with the promise of a full belly. Now the only thing you have to worry about are the mosquitoes.

First, you need a good place to build your fire and plenty of fuel for all its stages. You will be glad for a work table — maybe a plank between two stumps, so you don’t have to set everything on the ground. Anything that can be cooked in frying pans, kettles, or reflector ovens can be managed with a campfire. Don’t use pans with handles that will burn. Handles that aren’t metal will promptly burn or melt. If they’re all you have, let them do it, and then you can get on with it. Stick to simple ingredients and simple procedures when you’re cooking, because you didn’t bring your kitchen. If you are able to plan ahead to do all your cooking over an open fire, you especially need one or two cast-iron frying pans, a Dutch oven, a campfire coffeepot, and a big pan to heat dish and washing water in.

Second, you need to start the fire. Campfire cooking means starting a fire and controlling it until you don’t need it any more. There’s a real skill to it, which you’ll acquire with practice. The easiest way to do camp cooking is to pack a proper wood cookstove, set it up in your camp, and use it. Gather wood on dry days and store it under shelter to use on wet ones.

You can do this in a semi-permanent camp. If you’re living on the trail, start a fire like this: Lay a little mound of really flammable dry stuff in an open place, on dirt or sand if you can, and away from dry brush or grass. (Please don’t start a forest fire!) Place very loosely wadded toilet paper, dry grass, the wrappers from tin cans, or one of my book brochures crumpled up on top of that. You crumple it because paper doesn’t burn well flat. You’ve got to get air in there.

Now make a tipi of very slender dry sticks over that, then bigger and bigger ones over that. Set aside some yet bigger ones to add later. Use 3 matches bunched together to start the fire.

With your campfire, there are three different cooking methods you can employ: frying, stewing or baking.

Frying: Try to allow enough time to let a good roaring blaze burn down to coals. When desperate, though, you can fry on a flame. Have a circle of big flat-topped rocks around the outside of your fire circle. They will help hold the heat.

Stewing: Just make a place for your kettle down in there among the rocks. Some tribes of native Americans cooked their meat by digging a hole, lining it with a hide, filling it with water, and then adding hot rocks and pieces of meat. This had to be the first crock pot!

Baking: Use a reflector oven, Dutch oven in a hole, or build a mud oven. If you have clay soil, building a mud oven is a natural. Start by building a strong, dome-shaped frame of willow branches and sticks about 2 feet wide by 3 feet long. Cover your branch canopy with a layer of mud 6–12 inches thick. Cut a square opening at one end to be your oven door. At the top opposite end, insert a large tin can that is open at both ends; that will be your chimney. After the mud is completely dry, build a fire inside and burn out all your wooden framework. Cool and scrape the insides clean. To bake in your mud oven, first build a fire inside it and heat the mud to red-hot. Then rake out the fire and put in your sourdough bread, bannocks, stew, or roast. Close the door with a slab of flat rock, and it should bake wonderfully.

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