LIGHTING A FIRE adds a festive touch to any occasion, and cooking on that same fire adds to a general sense of relaxation, fun and well-being. The delicious aromas of a seasonal oyster stew, a simmering pot of mulled spiced wine or baking bread herald good times ahead because all foods (especially breads) made this way have irresistible flavor.
It was a logical extension of my interest in historical cooking to prepare some dishes in our own fireplace. Ours is large (48 inches wide by 38 inches high by 18 inches deep), but you can prepare some food in almost any fireplace.
Fireplace cooking is most fun if you have a partner–one cooks, the other tends the fire. My husband and I have a great time cooking together; when dinner is served, we eat by candlelight and the light of the fire. Afterwards, we enjoy the last of our wine and sometimes companionably nod off. It is a relaxing and fun way to spend a winter's evening.
In the previous issue I told you some history of the Dutch oven; now let's use this handy pot as it was intended–for open-hearth cooking.
The Basics of Fireplace Cooking
Food takes about the same time to cook over a fire as it does on a kitchen stove, once you have learned how to manage a fire. There is no need to feel anxious or rushed if the food is done sooner than expected; it is not harmed by standing in a warm place waiting to be served. Nor is there need for anxiety if the cooking takes longer than expected–that's part of the fun. Therefore, invite friends to fire-placed meals who can get into the spirit of the occasion.
Almost anything you can prepare on the store or in the oven can be done in the fireplace. However, for minimal mess and effort choose dishes that require a lot of liquid–we prefer to make stew or soups that can be served with homemade bread (also baked in the Dutch oven).
About an hour before you plan to start cooking, build a fire in one corner of the fireplace, light it and replenish it with wood as it burns down. This fire will supply the coals or embers, which will produce steady, long-lasting heat source. Ash and oak work well; fruitwoods are particularly good. Avoid softwoods such as pine, which burn quickly with comparatively little heat and tend to deposit soot and creosote–softwood fires make pots hard to clean and give the food a nasty flavor. Remember: food is not cooked over flames, but coals from the fire.
When you have a good supply of coals, create as many "burners" (small piles of embers on the stone floor of the fireplace away from the main fire) as you'll need to cook the meal.
Dutch ovens with legs can be set right over the burners; otherwise, a trivet with legs is placed over the coals and the pot is placed on the trivet. (Lacking a trivet, use four bricks: Place a stack of two bricks on either side of the coals and put the pot on them.)
If you use your everyday pans for fireplace cooking, try the old scout trick of soaping the outside of the pot–this will prevent the soot from sticking.
The equipment needed for fireplace cooking is minimal. Start with an aluminum or cast iron Dutch oven with a flat lif; cast iron skillets in various sizes; a trivet or four bricks to support the pot if it does not have legs; oven mitts; and a long-handled fork and spoon. We also have acquired a very handy lid-lifting gadget that stabilizes the pot lid while removing it. You might be able to find good cookware at tag sales, flea markets and hardware and camping goods stores.
Although most cast iron ware has been preseasoned to resist sticking, for water-based cooking you'll want to season it thoroughly before first use. Wash it out with soap and water and dry completely. Coat it with unsalted fat (preferable suet) or vegetable oil (not olive oil) and place it in a slow (300º) oven for about three hours. Remove it from the oven and wipe off the excess fat with paper towels. It is a miserable, smelly job, but it must be done to prevent your pots from rusting. Fortunately, you only have to do it once.
An alternative is to consider aluminum pots, which are lighter and require no seasoning. If you use your everyday pans for fireplace cooking, try the old scout trick of soaping the outside of the pot–this will prevent the soot from sticking. You might consider dedicating certain cookware to fireplace use only and skip cleaning the outside each time.
The recipes here are meant to be prepared in a living-room fireplace. Preparation of the dishes is done in the kitchen; only the essential equipment and ingredients are brought to the fireplace. The object is to cook the food with minimum effort or mess and to have lots of fun while doing it.
Food historian Peter G. Rose is the author of Foods of the Hudson (Overlook Press, 1993). Several of her dessert recipes were featured in The New York Times Magazine.