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Posted by Chef John Berry of MenuMagic
June 2010 Edmontonians

There’s something about cooking outdoors. Food always seems to taste better.
Most campers/RVers today use portable BBQs like the one my colleague Linda has. Her portable Coleman grill is so versatile and easy to use, it’s a must for beginners or pros who don’t want a lot of fuss and muss.
But nothing beats going back to the days of our forefathers, when everything was cooked over an open fire. You just can’t duplicate the flavour—that slight taste of smoke as you slow grill over a bed of coals. Besides, it’s not outdoor cooking unless you get a face and lung full of smoke.
I thought I’d share some of the basics of cooking over an open fire, so you can give it a try this summer. Some of the techniques also apply for grilling on a charcoal barbecue.
Bob Chapman, the GM of Wholesale Sports, says that it’s unfortunate the good old days of cooking over an open fire may have gone the way of the little red caboose. He estimates that 10 percent or less of today’s campers actually cook over a bed of hot coals in a fire pit. It’s a dying art. 

WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Outfitting your campfire kitchen can be a simple task. There are a number of stores that outfit campers and hikers in Edmonton. Wholesale Sports, on St. Albert Trail just off the Yellowhead Trail, has one of most extensive cooking sections I’ve ever seen.
For basic cooking utensils, you’ll want a cast iron frying pan, Dutch oven and sauce pan, as well as a coffee pot, a few wooden and slotted spoons and spatulas. The modern campfire kitchen includes a grill basket to cook meat, fish or vegetables over the coals. You can buy a sandwich maker, kebob skewers that are three feet long, enabling you to safely hold them over the open fire as you cook. There’s even a popcorn maker and—are you ready?—a special grill to make pizza over an open fire.

 
You’ll find the Dutch oven perhaps one of your favourite and most versatile tools. Make sure you get one with a tight fitting lid and three small feet on the bottom. This pot can be used on a tripod or grill, or you can bury it in coals and place a few coals on the lid. This is where it gets its name from—the heat on top and bottom act like an oven. It’s incredible for roasts, stews, casseroles and soups. I’ve even seen cakes and breads done in them. It’s your best all round tool.
Back in the early days of cooking over an open fire, a wooden tripod was used with grills suspended at various heights over the fire. Now, tripods are made of metal and can easily be adjusted for height. On average, they run around $27 and are easy to use and transport. They make cooking and keeping food warm a snap—your stove top/warmer all in one.
Don’t forget to bring along some heavy duty oven mitts, the professional type is best. Or make yourself a sturdy hook device to lift your Dutch oven off the coals. Be careful and keep in mind, it is cast iron and red hot! I’ve seen many a stew and pot roast end up in the coals because someone tried to lift the Dutch oven off with a tea towel. 

NOW, GET STARTED
When campfire cooking, we have to think safety first. Where possible, you should dig a fire pit… at least a foot deep and two to three feet round. Save the dirt to one side to fill in the pit when you’re done. Ideally, surround the pit with rocks to contain the fire and provide a base for a grate.
Campfire cooking is not hard once you get your timing and heat control down. The key is your heat. Light your fire 20 to 30 minutes before you need your coals. Hardwoods like oak, cedar or wild Alberta willow are best. Cherry, apple or plum give off a nice flavourful smoke. If you attempt to cook over open flame, any grease dripping off the food will cause the flames to flair up and burn your food. So make sure you have a good bed of coals. I like to heap them toward the center so you can move your cooked food to the edges of your grate to keep warm.
A few things to remember: Have a shovel for moving the coals as you need to adjust your heat, to overturn your coals as you pour water over them to extinguish your fire, and fill in the hole when you’re done. A pail of water should be kept next to your wood pile in case your campfire gets out of hand. And, as any outdoorsman/woman knows: Make sure your campfire is out—cold to the touch. And check for fire bans in the parks or wilderness areas you plan to visit.
Happy cooking!

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