For the love of a campfire

As summer has come to an end and autumn is in full-swing, Chris and I decided it was time to take the kids on their first camping trip. He and I used to do much more of this before either of the kids were born but three years have passed… and nothing. At times life gets so crazy with daily living that you can’t imagine simply packing everyone up to head out into… no where… but that’s what we did. In case there was any question, let me take this moment to tell you that living outdoors with a toddler and an infant is completely different from living outdoors with only your husband! Gone are the days (temporarily at least) of packing lightly and roughing it out for the sheer enjoyment of the trial. You can’t tell an infant, “You’re cold?? Walk it off.” Yep. I have never packed so much stuff for a simple couple day trip but after all is said and done, I’m so glad we did it. Our son didn’t once ask to watch a cartoon on our smartphones and our daughter napped so well all bundled up but feeling the cool air on her cheeks.

All of this discovering, new and old, forced me to remember how to cook over an open fire which has always been my favorite part of camping. It’s intoxicating to feel the contrast of the fire’s intense heat as well as the bite of the crisp air; to hear the snap-crack of the fire and to smell the scent of the food mingling with a swirl of smoke as it drifts upward, all the while listening to the birds and the autumn leaves in the breeze. Topping it off with a steaming cup of coffee to beat the chill takes me to heaven. Ahhhhh….

I was quickly brought back to earth when I remembered this trip was not only a first for my kids but also for me being a mom. Just because we were not in a house did not mean we were no longer nursing, changing diapers, napping, or potty training! There are certain schedules that wait for no one!!

So, timing. We use certain rules and guidelines when we’re cooking in our kitchens at home to make all sorts of amazing food. Even though the game has changed a bit, the same idea goes for outdoors. Nearly every food you prepare at home can be prepared outside. Some dishes just take extra time, attention, and creativity.

I’ll soon be putting up a post on what I take with me for my ideal camp kitchen. Until then, know that I love using cast iron. I use other items too but cast iron is by far my favorite. It may not be light weight but cast iron cookware is versatile, makes incredible food, and cleans up super easy. I’m talking, dish up your eggs and wipe out the pan with a dry paper towel type of easy. Let me know if you’d also be interested in seeing more about how I care for and use cast iron. Bottom line, if we’re taking little kids on a few day trip we’re most likely taking a car with us. If I have a car with me, I’ll have my cast iron too. 🙂

Cooking over a natural, wood fire requires attention. One moment you can’t get water to boil and the next, your sauce is burning. Here’s what I keep in mind. I’ve learned to estimate an entire hour to bring a gallon of water to boil in a cast iron pot, roughly 6 inches above a moderately managed flame in the midwest United States. This means sometimes the flames have full contact with the sides of the pot and then sometimes the flames go down while you’re tending to something else. As long as you stay close to notice when this happens and immediately stoke the fire, the initial boil will take roughly an hour. Whenever you do have moderate full flames under your cast iron, know your food will cook very quickly just as if you had a gas burner turned on full blast. For this reason you will want to move your pan off direct flames or allow the fire to go down for anything needing gentle heat or using a sauce such as the Chilaquiles I made for breakfast the other morning:

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In the addition to natural wood, I often use charcoal heat. This doesn’t happen every time we’re out but, once again, if I’m bringing a car…

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This Baking Temperature Chart is borrowed from Camp Dutch Oven Cooking 101 by the Lodge Mfg Co. This chart shows how many charcoal briquettes are needed to achieve a particular oven temperature. I used these principles when I cooked Cuban Inspired, Braised Mojo Pork at our site a few days ago. Using a 12″ dutch oven and aiming for a roughly 325 degree oven, I used a total of 23 preheated briquettes: 16 in a circle on top and 7 in a circle below. At least every 30 minutes I would use an iron lid-lifter or heavy oven/grill mitt to rotate the base of the oven 1/4 turn to the left, and the lid separately one 1/4 turn to the right. This promoted even heating of the interior of my oven. Also, new preheated briquettes needed to replace the expired briquettes every 45 minutes or so to keep my heat on target.

These same oven rules can be used to bake nearly anything outdoors. I once baked a beautiful double crust pie on an anniversary trip with Chris one year by assembling the dish in an aluminum pie plate. I then placed the plate on top of a few similarly sized small rocks inside the dutch oven which held my pie off the interior bottom, replaced the lid, and baked using the guidelines above. Given the pie itself, the surrounding scenery, and the good company, I can truly say I’ve never had better pie in my life.

Lastly, I recently acquired a small, briefcase style, 2-burner propane stove. No matter what the weather, as long as I have propane and my functioning burners I can have immediate, controllable heat. Never before have I had this luxury! For the good and the bad this sounds…. kind of like home, right? I don’t ever intend to plan camping meals solely around this type of heat source because it takes away the culinary adventure and romance for me. However, if you were to be on a tight schedule or especially if you’re camping with anyone who really can’t wait for food or fend for themselves the same way most of us can, this is a great thing to have on hand. It would also be particularly great on the morning following a rainstorm when everything else may be soaked. Don’t get me wrong: I was thrilled to have the burners with us on this trip. It was great being able to have my coffee immediately and enjoy creating a fire to cook over.

When cooking in a wild environment and using a natural heat source it is important to remember that you control very little. Enjoy it. Very soon you will return home to more rigid schedules and expectations, a proper kitchen where you will never get sudden showers, and a controllable heat source that puts out consistent edible results but, for now, enjoy the unscripted moment. You may be caught eating supper in the dark, solely by the light of a campfire because you didn’t time things right… or you could burn the entire meal and be relegated to eat the token hotdogs you brought with… but, the bottom line is it’s just food. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ll all live and have a story to tell. Good or bad? That’s your decision.

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