Every spring, the pull of outdoors and the need to be “doing” something (or the constant hunger of my people?) gets me thinking about cooking outdoors. Summer is supposed to the be time for al fresco dining, but it’s too hot to get a fire going during the day, and there are so many good foods that don’t need cooking in the summer. Spring and fall, however, are perfect for outdoor cooking. The warmth of the fire, the warmth of the food and the warmth of the sun all conspire to make things taste better outside.
But once you make hot dogs, what next? They don’t take long to cook, but they lose their appeal after a few meals (my kids disagree with me here). And you can’t take your kitchen pots outside, right? And how do you put a pot on a campfire anyway?
My kids attended an outdoor program recently, where the clever campfire set-up reinvigorated my open-air culinary ambitions. They used cinder blocks to surround a long rectangular cooking area. A grate or grill could easily be laid across the rectangle, resting over the fire, but it could also be moved away from the heat for slower cooking over indirect heat. This gives great control so you can keep a fire going, moving only the hot coals under the grate. Pots that are meant to cook slowly or keep warm can be set on the cinderblocks at the side of the fire. We use a mix of metal pots and cast iron pans to cook over the fire. Almost all of our cast iron cookware came from yard sales or junk piles. Once we scrub and re-season them, we have pans that could be passed on to our grandchildren.
One of our favorite snacks du jour is slow cooked apples. It's halfway between applesauce and baked apples. I chop up apples into large chunks, toss them in a Dutch oven and set next to the fire, or on a grate at the edge of the active fire – it’s very flexible. You want a low, steady heat to cook the apples slowly. When they are soft, we scoop them into bowls and top them with walnuts, coconut and raisins.
Another slow-cooked campfire favorite is black bean soup. I usually skip sautéing onions or garlic because it's harder to do over the fire. If you are adding meat, you can brown it over the fire first, just to add some extra flavor. Add all the ingredients to the pot and let it simmer over the fire until it’s ready. Scoop it into bowls or mugs and see if you can find a dry chair to sit down on... oh, hmmm, probably best to stand next to the fire, right? It’s warm there anyway.