Cooking over a fire… Has a romantic ring to it don’t you think? Getting in touch with your roots, your inner woodsman, your primal instincts! None of that setting a convection oven to exactly 350oF and a timer for 12 minutes for perfectly baked cookies, no setting your stove to low and letting your tomato sauce simmer for an hour. Cooking over a fire is roughing it, it’s how we were meant to cook!
If only it were that simple. Not to burst anyone’s bubble but cooking over a fire takes practice and skill. Sure, you can stab a hot dog on a stick, roast it over the fire and call it dinner… but if you want to make a gourmet 3 course meal over the fire, you’re going to need more than just a fire and a stick.
Picture this instead… you’re in the middle of a 10-day expedition with friends, and it’s your turn to cook dinner. You are going to wow them with a feast of Pulled Pork Quesadillas along with some other nifty treats (by the way this is one of the top 10 favourite meals at MHO Adventures).
Fire! That’s what it’s all about. A wonderful fire is the key to your whole dinner production. Too big and you’ll be scraping burnt bits of food off the bottom of your frying pan. Too small and you’ll never get that pot of water to boil. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before you can even think of lighting your fire, you need to collect lots of firewood. But this isn’t your first firewood collecting rodeo, and you know you need a progression of small sticks to larger sticks, no bigger than your wrist, as dead and dry as you can find.
While you’re admiring your big pile of firewood, you recall that one time you ran out of wood while cooking and had to scramble to get more. Never again will you be left running into the forest with your headlamp trying to find that one dead tree you saw earlier but didn’t grab because you “thought you had enough wood”. Plus, with this big pile of firewood you’ll have enough to cook breakfast in the morning too. The idea of collecting firewood before your morning coffee makes you shudder.
Some people swear by the teepee method of lighting a fire, others use the log cabin, but you’re more of a light-a-pile-sticks-on-fire kind of person. Lots of birch bark, lots of twigs. That’s how you get a fire going. The goal of a proper cook fire is to have a good bed of coals and keep a consistent flame going, whether it’s a roaring fire to boil water, or the smallest of flames to toast your calzone.
Being the master of foresight you are, you started rehydrating your pulled pork at breakfast. While everyone else was scooping up that last bite of scrambled eggs, you were busy adding the pulled pork to a Nalgene container and filling it with water. Now that you’re at your campsite it’s time to fully rehydrate the pulled pork. Dump that whole container into your favourite medium pot and set it over the side of your fire that you have strategically let die down a bit. You want your pulled pork to simmer aromatically, not boil and burn.
While the pulled pork is filling the air with its drool inducing aroma, it’s time to start the appetizer. Not just any appetizer either, the king of all appetizers: baked brie. With care, you make a tiny bathtub for your little wheel of brie to help contain all of that gooey deliciousness as it melts. To finish it off you sprinkle some brown sugar over top and add some nuts from your trail mix. Pop that sucker into your Dutch oven (or Dutchie as you like to call it) and let it bask over the hot coals, keeping an eye on it so it doesn’t become a soupy mess.
While you multitask like a champ, chopping all the vegetables for your quesadilla, grating some cheese, rehydrating your salsa, pulling out the tortilla bread, and preparing another surprise item, your fellow campers start to trickle in, following the will of their growling bellies. After pulling the brie off the fire and sampling it a few times, you are ready for the main event.
The Main Event
You taste your pulled pork, and it seems fully rehydrated. Keeping your fire stoked to maintain the simmering flame, you warm up your pan to grill your veggies. Once they are soft and tender, it’s time to assemble the quesadillas. Lining up all the ingredients, you stuff each quesadilla with some grilled veggies, pulled pork, grated cheese, and salsa. Now you have to maintain the perfect even temperature for your fire and grill each quesadilla individually in the frying pan. You’ve tried directly on the fire before and lost a lot of the trappings to the flames, so you’re playing it safe now with the pan. You anxiously check the underside of the first quesadilla, making sure it turns golden brown but doesn’t trespass into black char territory. Once you see that beautiful brown finally appear, it’s time for the flip. This is your time to shine. The perfect flip is not easy to achieve, and everyone is watching. Too slow and the juicy innards will slide out the side, too fast and they might go flying out the front. But you’ve done this before, and you’ve got a trick up your sleeve. With your mighty spatula you gently slide the quesadilla onto a plate, now with a hand on top of the quesadilla and a hand under the plate you smoothly flip the whole thing back into the pan. Gasps and applause fill the air as your fellow canoe trippers marvel at your clever technique.
Now that you’re in the groove, the next quesadillas pass through your hands effortlessly and in no time at all everyone is slurping up those juicy pulled pork masterpieces. But you’re not done yet. The best is yet to come.
The Pièce de Résistance
Before you can sit down to enjoy your own well-deserved meal, you stoke the fire until the flames grow high enough to tickle the bottom of your grill, dump exactly 36 briquettes onto the grill, and spread them out so each piece will come into contact with the flame. As people stare at you questioningly, you give a sly grin, and take a few bites of your dinner. When the briquettes are glowing a soft pink, you slip on your trusty fire gloves and armed with a good set of tongs you set to work.
Your audience can’t help but stare in confusion as you set up a contraption they have never seen before. You evenly scatter 12 of the hot briquettes on a pizza pan, put a small platform (called a ‘trivet’) over the briquettes, and place your Dutchie upon the trivet. Then on top of the Dutchie you disperse the remainder of the briquettes. To cap it off you cover the whole thing with a reflector… The best way to describe this homemade apparatus is a cozy “yurt” for your Dutch oven. The basic idea being the containment of every last Joule of heat. You have now basically created an oven heated to approximately 350oF.
Once everyone has licked their plates clean and claim to “not be able to eat another bite”, you decide to test this proclamation by unveiling what was inside your Dutch oven contraption. You remove all the briquettes, more like dust now that they’ve burned down almost completely, and lift the lid to reveal the most perfect looking apple crisp. Shouts of disbelief and excitement fill the air as your friends ask when the heck you had time to make an apple crisp while you were cooking. As you stuff your face with steaming sugary bits of apple you explain that it’s all in the prep. Some of the dessert you prepared before the trip even started, the rest you prepared while the pulled pork was rehydrating over the fire.
Finally, as the dishes are being washed (by someone else of course), you can remove the grill from over top of the fire, throw on some bigger logs, examine how much arm hair you burned off working so close to the fire, and enjoy a beverage and a relaxing evening knowing that everyone will go to bed with full bellies.
As you can see, cooking on a fire is not a simple task. It involves planning and problem-solving, quick movements and patient hands, all with smoke in your eyes and occasional scent of singed hair… but with practice and careful execution it can feel great to experience the most basic method of cooking. Having said that, if all this seems like too much work for you, check out the trips that MHO Adventures offers, we do 100% of our cooking over fire! Paddle with us and enjoy gourmet meals with none of the hassle or singed hair!