Campfire Cooking

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Crystal Parrish enjoys her Foolproof Chili and Dutch Oven Cornbread prepared over a campfire

Take it outdoors this season.

There’s nothing quite like enjoying the scent of a tasty campfire meal wafting through the campsite. Whether on a crackling fire or over coals, food cooked the old-fashioned way — outdoors, in nature — seems to carry an extra note of deliciousness. Since camping and cooking outside are increasingly becoming more popular as a safe recreational option, now is the time to load up the cooler, grab a few supplies, spark the heat, and get cooking alfresco.

Fire Roasted and Toasted

There are two tried-and-true ways to cook at camp: with an open flame (and lingering coals and ash) or briquettes. Skewered hot dogs, vegetables, or marshmallows cooked over a roaring fire tend to be easy go-to’s for most happy campers.

But as Tom Wainscoat, outdoor chef extraordinaire and chief master sergeant in the Nevada Air National Guard, puts it, “Cooking on a campfire can really be pretty simple, but you can do so many different dishes. Once you start your fire, you let it cook down a little bit to get the coals to use for heat. Then all you need is a good cast-iron skillet, foil, or a grate to get things going.”

With a variety of favorite dishes prepared in the open air, including paella, risotto, polenta, even lamb kebobs with pitas and tzatziki sauce, Wainscoat has prepared the gamut over sizzling embers. Perhaps one of his favorites is making pizzas with his young daughters.

“We make the dough from scratch, and you’re outside, so you don’t worry about getting flour everywhere,” he explains. “We roll the dough out on silicone mats, add our favorite toppings, and put it on a grate over hot coals. The smokiness and char you get in the crust is so good.”

Wainscoat also is a big fan of placing foil packets filled with vegetables, meat, and spices directly on the coals.

“It’s super simple, but so delicious,” he notes. “When it comes to cooking on a campfire, just go for it. You’re going to make mistakes, but those mistakes can be fun stories to tell later.”

Bring on the Briquettes

Founded by Crystal Parrish in 2009, Northern Sierra Dutch Oven Group in Reno is a team of volunteers with a passion for using Dutch ovens, both indoors and outside.

“Pre-COVID-19, we had in-person classes and participated in community events with all levels, from beginners to what we call our ‘seasoned’ cooks,” Parrish recalls. “We primarily cook in cast iron and, when outside, we use hot briquettes or charcoal. There’s just something about the ambience when you’re camping … folks associate Dutch ovens with chuckwagons, and this type of meal preparation takes you back to a different time.”

With cast iron and, specifically, Dutch ovens, Parrish is a big advocate for using charcoal in a fire pit for many reasons, including safety, consistency in heat, and ease of use.

Parrish prepares coals in her campfire

“We live in a windy region, and it’s important to be mindful of the environment,” she says. “In a fire pit, there is a built-in shield. We use charcoal because it holds the heat longer and is more reliable.”

Parrish recommends a good pair of heat-resistant welding gloves. “Cast iron gets really hot, so use good gloves. Remember, you’re playing with fire.”

Speaking of the heat in cast iron, one of the reasons it works so well when cooking outdoors is because it conducts heat evenly for a very long time. When sealed tightly with a lid, a Dutch oven becomes a portable oven able to cook anything from cakes and cobblers to stew, chili, and cornbread — some of Parrish’s favorite items to cook.

“When camping, you want dishes you can make in one pot. Dutch ovens provide a great vessel for cooking in a satisfying way that all the campers will love,” she says.

Recently, Heidi Bethel received several cast-iron items as heirlooms from her mother, Kim Hughes. Included in the mix is a favorite Dutch oven that she cannot wait to use this season.

Elevated S’mores

They make an appearance at every campsite all year long. Why not get creative next time? Try these tips to take your s’mores to the next level:

  • Opt for dark or white chocolate instead of your standard milk chocolate bar.
  • Try cookies or waffles instead of Graham crackers.
  • Splurge on gourmet marshmallows.
  • Wainscoat suggests cooking croissant or biscuit dough over an inverted cup over the fire. Once cooked through, fill with the sweet treats and enjoy some melty goodness.

The following recipes are courtesy of Crystal Parrish, founder, Northern Sierra Dutch Oven Group.

Foolproof Chili
(Serves 6 to 8)

2 pounds ground Italian sausage, mild
2 pounds ground beef
2, 10-ounce cans Rotel tomatoes, mild
2, 15-ounce cans red kidney beans, undrained
2, 15-ounce cans black beans, undrained
2 bell peppers (red, yellow, and/or orange), diced*
1, 10-ounce bag frozen corn
2, 6-ounce cans tomato paste
1 tablespoon each chili powder, cumin, oregano, garlic salt, pepper

*Optional: To add extra punch, add 1 jalapeño pepper, diced

Preheat sealed, 12-inch Dutch oven with 10 to 12 coals on bottom and 14 to 16 on lid, for 15 minutes. Carefully remove lid, keeping coals on top. Brown sausage and ground beef together. Add Rotel tomatoes, tomato paste, beans (including liquid), peppers, and corn. Flavor with seasonings to taste. Cover with lid. Let simmer over full bed of coals on bottom, keeping 14 to 16 coals on top, for 30 to 45 minutes.

Dutch Oven Cornbread
(Serves 6-8)

½ cup butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten
1½ cups milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup cornmeal
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat sealed 10-inch Dutch oven with 14 coals on top and 6 to 10 coals on bottom. When oven is hot, melt butter and transfer to a large bowl. Wipe surface of oven with any residual butter to create a lightly greased surface. Keep oven preheated with coals on lid and bottom.

Whisk butter together with eggs and milk in a large bowl. In separate bowl, sift together all dry ingredients. Make sure dry ingredients are fully combined. Add dry mix, 1 cup at a time, to wet ingredients, and stir until all ingredients are completely combined. Pour batter into Dutch oven and cover. Bake for about 35 minutes or until a knife or toothpick inserted through the center of the cornbread comes out clean. Be sure to rotate the lid ¼ turn in one direction and the oven a ¼ turn in the opposite direction every 15 minutes. This will alleviate any hot spots or burning of the bottom.

Serve with butter and honey, or crumble on top of chili.

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