Cooking over a fire
Why go to all the trouble?
Fires are a lot of work. Gathering wood is a big chore. Chainsaws are loud and scary. Splitting logs is backbreaking. No wonder modern man uses alternate ways to heat and cook. Fires make a big mess too. Leaves and bark scatter across the floor and then there's taking out the ashes. Bending over a low hot fire is a back strain. Dust coats everything. With all the obvious drawbacks to woodstoves, many people think it's well worth the time and effort.
Some of us who already went to all that trouble to get some good coals going think the natural next thing to do is to cook something on it. I'm one of them. I have an additional reason too. This is my only stove, it heats my home. I live in interior Alaska and all winter I have to keep a fire going 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Eating food cooked on a woodstove or over an open fire is a much anticipated event. That's because some things take a lot longer to cook over wood flames as compared to a gas or electric stove and oven (or a microwave). But if you've got fire, patience and a few good tools, you can cook and bake many of your favorite meals.
I have a small Drolet Hunter's woodstove designed for small cabins and large tents. It used to hold a fire for about 4-6 hours. The manufacturer advises against using this model for full-time use. I've been burning it steadily in my tents since August 2006 and it carried me through two winters that dropped down to 50 below zero. It's now showing signs of splitting apart at the seams. It's been an awesome stove that overperformed it's intended mission, and it was well worth the $200.00.
For baking I now use a Camerons' Smoker. Designed for cooking fish over a campfire. This little cooker is the best garage sale find of last summer. It's a big pan with inside racks and a handle, about 10x15 inches and maybe two inches tall with a piece that slides over the top.
Not intended as a cookbook, this Instructable includes a sampling of a couple of the recipes I've made that were edible.
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Step 1: Making Fire
Anyone who's familiar with fires may want to skip reading this step. It has to be here for the people who haven't had the chance to make a lot of fires. I know a few people who haven't.
Firewood can be anything from small sticks to round logs. Some woods burn much faster and hotter than others. Smaller pieces of wood will heat up quickly and die out just as fast, unless you have a way to control the fire's air intake.
Gather your wood ahead of time so you can stack it near the fire to dry it overnight. Keep a small axe handy with a piece of floor board to chop kindling right there on the floor by the stove. If you're going to do this for any length of time it's a big help to have some kind of a cart or sled to pull loads of wood back to your hearth. I've spent years studying cart designs because I got sick of hauling loads on my back or in my arms. Today I use a RubberMaid dump cart that retails at Cotsco for $100. I've also used wheelbarrows, garden carts, kid's wagons, plastic sleds and luggage to haul wood back to my camp.
Coal and other wood burning substitutes work just as well too. In some parts of the world they burn dung and grass. The main thing is a steady source of heat and a hot space to place your pots and pans.
Starting the fire
Box matches work best, they're called kitchen matches for a reason.
Paper -- has a tendency to float away while it's still burning. It's not the best way to start a fire unless you have a metal spark screen to put over it or have a really tall smoke stack. Glossy paper gives off nasty fumes, and some paper just won't ignite enough to catch the wood.
Kindling -- small sticks, wood shavings, leaves and bark all work if it's dry. I used to keep a bin full of firestarter materials near the stove that became a paper garbage can.
Wax -- Thanks to my sister in Valdez, http://fishtaxi.blogspot.com starting our fires now couldn't be easier. She showed us how to save all our egg cartons and fill them with leftover wax saved from burnt candles. (There are other Instructables on this same topic).
Homemade Firestarters -- If the coals in our stove die down too much or we've just cleaned out the ashes and are starting fresh, we tear off one "egg" and put it under and between some wood. Once lit with a wooden kitchen match, this little flame stays going long enough to catch even good sized logs. This can be modified to recycle anything that's burnable; cardboard cut into 1 inch strips and dipped in melted wax and dried are in my emergency pack. The only problem with this method is the scarcity of cheap wax, candles can be expensive these days. I also carry a flint and magnesium shaving bar in my purse, but this is only for emergencies.
Kerosene-gasoline-diesal -- Never use liquid fuels to start a wood fire unless you know how to do that and are prepared to deal with whatever explosions occur as a result. If you want to burn liquid fuels to cook over, there are many fuel designed cook stoves that will serve you well.
Setting the temperature
Small sticks and split logs will give you a brisk fire as long as you keep an eye on it and feed it every ten to fifteen minutes. If you're using a wood stove you can add a couple good sized pieces of dry wood, shut the damper down, and wait for the stove to heat up. This is best for baking that requires a high oven temperature. Wet wood doesn't put off much heat.
Baking makes for a very hot room so be prepared to open the door or window or tent flap and let some of the heat escape. If you don't have a way to cool the room down you'll be reluctant to keep the fire hot enough to finish cooking your food. Wandering outside without a coat on feels fabulous if it's swealtering inside and cold outside. It's a nice way to see the winter skies too, even if only for a few seconds. Plus there's things that need to be taken outside when you're cooking too, like old dishwater and sometimes more wood. We have an outhouse so that's another outside daily routine.
As word about health: Living this way has made me much physically stronger than I might have been at 51 years old. I'm a smoker, I was a heavy drinker in my youth, I eat odd things at odd hours and I used to be about 165 pounds after my son was born in 1990. Today I'm at about 125 and can lift and carry 7 gallons without whining too much.
Anyone can boil water, right? If your recipe calls for bringing water to a boil, build a roaring fire and get your covered pot of water as close to the flames as is possible, or put it on top of a hot, hot stove. Uncovered water on a low flame will turn to steam and float away before it boils.
Metal pots can be placed right in the flames or coals. This turns them a sooty black that is very messy to wash off. Once a pot is placed over an open fire that's pretty much all it's good for unless you like scrubbing. Some wood cookstoves have round holes in the top that lift off so you can open it up and put your pan directly on the flame. I've never had one of those. If you live on the U.S. east coast there are lots of old very inexpensive wood cookstoves on ebay for pick-up only buyers, and I did see one on Alaska craigslist for $500 one time.
Another suggestion might be to get used to filling a big pot for dish water and put it right on the stove and keep it there or near enough to heat the water. If you keep it clean with a lid on it you can scoop it out for washing your face or for cooking water. But what you really want it for is to do the dishes afterwards.
Step 2: Garlic Baked Copper River Red Salmon
Copper River Red Salmon are one of the healthiest foods harvested in Alaska. If you like fish and are lucky enough to land one of these, enjoy! These Reds are good even if it's half cooked using a rock on the bank of the river.
One Copper River Red Salmon, cleaned and fileted.
Garlic chunks and slices
Medium Onion, diced
Seasoning Salt (optional)
Lemon and Pepper
Preheat oven or a flat stovetop container with a cover (cover can be tinfoil). Place filets skin side down on a raised rack inside whatever oven container you use. Sprinkle garlic, onion and seasonings liberally across the top of the filets. Drip olive oil down the center of each filet. Close cover. Bake until done, check often. It takes about a half hour in my Camerons. Note: overcooked fish is dry and loses its flavor. Salmon changes color from a deep red to a lighter pink-orange when it's fully cooked, and it separates easily with a fork.
This fish melts in your mouth and there's never enough garlic for our tastes! Goes great with black bean salza and steamed rice.
Step 3: Baking Soda Banana Pancake Muffins
Pancakes are an Alaskan staple. I always have pancake mix on hand. I'm a big fan of Krustez baking products, they're inexpensive, come in bulk sizes and they make the best pre-mixed recipes I've found. I like foods that can be stored for long periods if necessary and ones that can be stretched out to feed additional mouths. Last week I noticed I had barely touched this big 10lb bag I bought last September. We lived on pancakes for 3 weeks last May, so we just never made them again after I opened it the first time.
As I buy more of my supplies in bulk I'm trying to get it to where everything I buy I USE regularly. I want my stored goods continually rotated and replaced with fresh stuff. I read it on some guy's survival guide a long time ago, and I've found him to be dead right about one thing:ONLY buy "emergency" food supplies that are part of your regular diet.
I also don't recommend having any illusions about what you'll "learn" to like because you think if you had to you'd learn to eat things that are good for you or whatever. The fact is if we end up living off our back-up supplies it's a lot better emotionally to have things we like... period. And I love bread so much I could live off it, and I think it's almost possible.
1 cup white flour, sifted
1/2 cup Krustez Buttermilk Pancake Mix
1 cup instant oats
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp pumpkin spice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar, brown or white
1 pkg Kellogs Fruit Snacks
dash salt (optional)
12 oz glass instant milk
Makes 12 medium sized muffins.
Preheat oven container. Mash bananas in medium sized bowl with pastry cutter (or spoon or fork). Add milk to bananas and stir lightly leaving small chunks of the bananas. Add spices, baking soda. Stir. Sift in a few shakes of flour, stirring every time until it's blended well. Add oatmeal and fruit pkg. Stir. Place 2 heaping tablespoons in each place in a muffin pan. (I got the muffin pan in the pictures at a second hand store for $5. They bend and don't need to be coated with oil or Crisco.) Bake 2 hours or until done over a medium fire, figure about 1 and 1/2 hours over a roaring fire.
Don't worry about the muffin crumbling, the pancake mix makes it sticky and solid. Leave out the bananas and the fruit pkg and add 1/2 cup raisins and a T molasses. Any fruit should work and I'm going to try meats and veggies next. Maybe an artichoke, onion, garlic fried sausage and cheese version if I ever have the money to try it. Then, well, why not. I might just have to try an English variety that adds liquors.
Step 4: Yeast Bread
This recipe is based on what I could remember about a recipe I used a lot in Seattle. I've lost the cookbook but it was Tajahara or something like that.
INGREDIANTS and DIRECTIONS
Put 3 cups warm water in large mixing bowl (not hot!)
Add a palmful of yeast
Wait 10 minutes or until yeast dissolves
Add to bowl and mix:
1 cup sugar or other sweetener, less if you don't like it sweet
few shakes of cinnamon
dried milk, powder
3 T olive oil
1 cup of uncooked instant oats -- optional, I just like to add oats to all my breads
6 cups white flour mixed in slowly until it comes off the sides of the mixing bowl.
pour 1 T olive oil on top of ball
roll it over in bowl
cover with a towel, place in a warm spot, let rise til double in size.
punch dough down with knuckles
knead for 5 minutes or more, adding more flour until it's smooth and elastic
add more oil to top of dough
roll dough over in bowl
let rise again til double in size
punch dough down again
add more flour and lightly knead
separate dough into 5 equal balls.
grease all baking pans lightly with Crisco.
Making the bread dishes
smash down one ball with heels of hands,
cover with apricot jam, cinnamon, and raisins,
roll into a pinwheel tube, slice,
lay out on baking sheet and bake 55 minutes.
Bread can be made in pans, on cookie sheets or in Stoneware pots with lids.
put one loaf in bread pan, cover it with spices and herbs, let rise
put one loaf in a stoneware jug with lid, let rise
one loaf in another stoneware bowl with lid, let rise
times varied, approximately one hour each.
slice one ball into thin pieces, lay on baking sheet.
top with garlic chunks, onions, basil and olive oil.
roll into baseball sized balls, flatten with palms