Half a century ago, my uncle gave me great advice: “If you want to live the life of an outdoorsman, you’d better learn to cook. You won’t always have a mother or wife to cook meals with.” My uncle was a great cook and he taught me a lot about the basics of camp cooking. Oh, he didn’t cook anything fancy, just good tasting “camp food,” but he knew his way around a campfire and a Dutch Kettle or a Coleman oven.
I took his advice to heart and discovered years ago that I enjoy camping cooking. Over the years I’ve learned from camp cooks up north at fly-in fishing lakes in Saskatchewan to some great cooks or “El Cocineras” in Mexico. Camp cooking is actually quite simple, the key to great tasting food has a lot to do with controlling the heat, especially when cooking over a wood fire.
Cast iron is a camp cook’s best friend. It holds heat well and is ideal for everything from roasting on high heat to slow-cooking meat at low temperature. A wood fire obviously doesn’t have knobs to adjust the heat like an indoor range, so learning how to manage heat by placing charcoal or embers from a hardwood fire is a must. Too much heat under a dutch kettle will scorch and too little on top is not conducive to baking.
I’ve cooked on everything from a pit in the ground to hickory coals to an electric smoker and all manner of camp stoves that use both propane and wood for fuel. Today I use several stoves to prepare my meals outdoors. Whenever I’m home or at camp with electricity, I always rely on my Smokin Tex Electric Smoker (www.smokintex.com) to slow cook meat and poultry. I used to stay up all night feeding my stick burner smokers wood, but years ago discovered how easy it was to put some wood in the smokebox of my electric smoker, turn the knob on the thermostat, and smack the meat to let it cook slowly overnight while I sleep. I rely on my electric smoker to turn pulled pork from wild boar into slow-smoked sausages and ham.
But sometimes I have to grill steaks or chops at camp, or possibly roast fish over a wood fire. I have a small smoker that I found at Bucees that is only about 20 inches long and is built exactly like a large smoker, complete with chimney. It’s ideal for quickly cooking a few steaks or hamburgers over charcoal. It has a side vent to allow airflow towards the chimney and the flame is easily controlled by lowering the lid to keep the fire at a lower temperature.
Propane can be an outdoor cook’s best friend, especially when the wood is wet and a quick fish fry is the order of the day. A propane burner is essential equipment for frying fish or making a stew or gumbo at camp. I also have a Coleman grill which I have used for many years. It is fueled by the small propane tanks that screw to a bracket on the grill. I found it ideal for cooking fajita meat or breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage. When I cook fajitas for larger groups, I have my friend make me a wok out of a 30-inch plow disk. My wok has two horseshoe handles welded to the side and cooks fajitas or breakfasts of scrambled eggs, sausage and potatoes fast enough to feed a large crowd.
I also learned a few camp cooking tricks from an elderly gentleman I used to hang out with a lot. The late Dubb Wallace grew up in an era before fast food restaurants could be found on every corner. In the early 1940s, he recounted trips in her Dodge truck from West Texas to New Mexico. “We pulled off the road around sunset and the kids gathered some wood to use for a cooking fire, mum got a chicken, potatoes, cookie dough or whatever she wanted to cook and in no time we were up a delicious meal the tailgate of this old truck. Dubb’s father was a fur trapper in West Texas and Dubb would spend a few weeks at the fur camp with his father and mother each year during the Christmas holidays. Dubb said they have a large Dutch Kettle on the embers 24 hours a day. They would add turkey, venison, wild goat or whatever they had to the vegetables and bury the stove in the ground while they laid the campfire coals on top. The heat from the coals kept the ingredients at a “safe” temperature, which was important. There was no express stop around the corner to get ice cream, nor electricity to run a fridge. I know how slow cooking in cast iron tenderizes even the toughest cut of meat. The typical dinner back then was the Dutch Kettle ‘stew’ and homemade biscuits. I later tried this simple dish myself and can attest to how good it is!
Even in today’s modern world, it’s good to know how to cook delicious al fresco meals over the flame of a propane burner or wood fire. If you’re new to Dutch kettle cooking, try making a berry cobbler using charcoal for fuel. You don’t even have to do it from scratch; There are some very tasty pre-packaged cobbler mixes at the grocery store! Dewberries will be in season soon, consider picking a few quarts, put sugar and butter in a Dutch Kettle and sprinkle with your favorite cobbler’s mix. Place charcoal on top and around the edge underneath. Let cook for about 40 minutes. Frozen pie shells work well too, just add some cinnamon and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice for extra flavor!
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