Back a half-century ago, my uncle gave me some great advice, “If you are going to live the life of an outdoorsman, you had better learn to cook. You won’t always have a mother or wife around to prepare meals.” My uncle was a great cook and he taught me a great deal about the basics of camp cooking. He didn’t cook anything fancy, just great tasting “camp food”… he knew his way around a campfire and Dutch Kettle or Coleman stove.
I took his advice to heart and discovered years ago that I enjoyed camp cooking. Through the years, I have learned from camp cooks in the far north at fly-in-fishing lakes in Saskatchewan to cooks or “El cocineras” in Mexico. Camp cooking is really pretty basic, the key to turning out a great tasting meal has much to do with controlling heat, especially when cooking over a wood fire.
Cast iron is a camp cook’s best friend. It holds the heat well and is ideally suited to everything from frying at high heat to slow cooking meats at low temperature. A wood fire obviously has no knobs like an indoor range for adjusting the heat, so learning to manage heat by placement of charcoal or embers from a hardwood fire is a must. Too much heat underneath a Dutch kettle will scorch and not enough on top will not be conducive to baking.
I have cooked on everything from a pit in the ground over hickory coals to an electric smoker and all sorts of camp stoves that use both propane and wood as fuel. These days, I use several cookers for preparing my meals outdoors. When around the house or at a camp with electricity, I always rely on my Smokin Tex electric smoker (www.smokintex.com) for slow cooking meats and poultry. I used to stay up all night feeding wood to my “stick burner” smokers but discovered years ago how easy it is to put some wood in the smoke box of my electric smoker, set the dial on the thermostat and let the meat slow cook all night while I am sleeping. I rely on my electric smoker making pulled pork from wild hogs to slow smoking sausages and hams.
But there are times when I need to grill steaks or chops at camp or possibly fry fish over a wood fire. I have a little smoker I found at Bucees that is only about 20 inches long that’s built exactly like a big smoker, complete with smoke stack. It is ideal for quickly cooking a few steaks or hamburgers over charcoal. It has a side vent to allow air flow opposite of the smoke stack, and the flame is easily controlled by lowering the lid to keep the fire at lower temperature.
Propane can be an outdoor cook’s best friend, especially when the wood is wet and a quick fish fry is in order. A propane burner is essential for frying fish or making a stew or gumbo at camp. I also have a Coleman grill that I’ve used for many years. It is fueled by the small propane bottles that screw to a fitting on the grill. I’ve found it ideal for cooking fajita meat or a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage. When cooking fajitas for larger groups, I have a wok my friend made for me from a 30 inch plow disc. My wok has two horseshoes welded to the side for handles and will quickly cook enough fajitas or a breakfast to feed a large crowd.
I also learned some camp cooking tricks from an older gentleman I used to spend a lot of time with. The late Dubb Wallace grew up in an era way before fast food restaurants were located on every corner. He used to talk about trips from West Texas to New Mexico back in the early forties in their Dodge truck. “We would pull off the road about sundown and the kids would gather up some wood to use for a fire, mother would break out a chicken, potatoes, biscuit dough or whatever she was going to cook and in no time and we would be eating a tasty meal on the tail gate of that old truck. Dubb’s father was a fur trapper out in West Texas and Dubb spend a couple weeks at fur camp with his dad and mother during Christmas holidays each year. Dubb said they kept a big Dutch Kettle on the coals 24 hours a day. They would add turkey, venison, wild goat meat or whatever they had to veggies and bury the oven in the ground, banking coals on top from the campfire. The heat from the coals kept the ingredients at a safe temperature, which was important. There was no Quick Stop around the corner to run to for ice or any electricity to run a refrigerator. I know how slow cooking in cast iron tenderizes even the toughest cut of meat. The typical evening meal back in the day was their 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 tasty meals outdoors over the flame from 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 make it from scratch; there are some very tasty packaged cobbler mixes at the grocery! Dewberries will soon be in season, consider picking a couple quarts, add sugar and butter into a Dutch Kettle and top with your favorite cobbler mix. Place charcoals on top and around the edge underneath and allow to cook about 40 minutes. Frozen pie shells work well also, you will just need to add a bit of cinnamon and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice for added flavor!
Catch Luke’s weekly outdoor radio show at www.catfishradio.org.