Cooking with FireSeptember 16, 2016
You can taste it as you read: smoky charred meats and blackened grilled veg coming out of a wood-fired oven, off a bbq or even straight from a campfire. Prometheus was right, our mob really are better off with fire.
Modern cooking, especially at home, largely removes us from direct interaction with fire. There are good reasons for this; safety and convenience being amongst them. Even gas stoves are lit remotely and controlled mechanically. Australian bbqs hold their international reputation as social events and reflection of the Australian lifestyle; cheap sausages burnt over a gas grills and served on white bread have their place but pale besides Argentinean asado, middle eastern grills or smoky and saucy southern US bbq.
But there’s a newer trend, the desire for flavours and textures that have been removed from modern kitchens. A neo-Luddite movement, rejecting the complexity and precision fed to us from shows like Masterchef as they promote ‘essential’ cooking equipment and branded merch. It’s time to return to the basics of flickering heat and blistered flesh. Join us, as we walk back into the flame…Dramatics aside, what’s really missing from your kitchen (that is, unless you happen to work for Lennox Hastie) is smoke and charcoal.
The challenges are to understand temperatures, when to scrape hot coals out of the main flame for slower cooking, and given the lack of precision, to be able to judge cooking times by looking at your actual meal instead of your watch.
The most basic entry point is cooking in a campfire, so I hope you’re comfortable in a tent. Make sure you head out in the cooler months to avoid fire bans, and you’ll usually need to bring in wood yourself to ensure an adequate supply of large pieces that generate good coals. Remember to avoid treated timbers, to avoid noxious fumes.
Setting the menu
Build up your fire until you have a good bed of glowing coals. This takes a bit of time, so make sure you start late afternoon to prepare an evening meal. Wrap root vegetables whole in aluminium foil. Scrape a pile of hot coals to the side of the main fire, still in the fire pit or ring, and bury the foil packages in the coal. Sweet potato, parsnips and carrots will take about 15-20 minutes, squeeze to check as they go soft when cooked. Potatoes will take about 10 minutes bit longer, and will come out dryer. A drizzle of oil in the foil package can help.
Corn is another winner, and even more simple. Just place the corn cob, still wrapped in its husk, on top of the coals. The husk will burn and the kernels will blacken. That’s what you want. Keep an eye on them and rotate as needed until evenly charred, about 15 minutes.
If you’ve been fishing, and more successful than I usually am, steam-baking in foil packages is a great way to prepare your catch. Scale, clean and fillet your fish. Prepare a large sheet of foil, and place in the middle a piece of baking paper just bigger than your fillets. Put the fish on top, cover with a few herbs and thin slices of lemon. Gather up the sides of the foil into a makeshift bowl and drizzle in a little white wine. Seal the edges of your package leaving enough empty space at the top for the steam to circulate. After placing on the top of hot coals, not the flame itself, this should be cooked in around 10 minutes. Serve with baked veg, charred corn and campfire damper.
If you’re not so keen on camping, but do have a gas stovetop, try this instead. Separate the leaves of radicchio or another bitter leaf. Using metal tongs, hold the leaves one by one over the highest gas burner on your stove, until it starts to char and blacken. Use these as the base for a great salad of red onion and asparagus and dressed with mayonnaise.
Counter-revolution aside, with a bit of creativity a lot can be achieved even in our sanitised kitchens!