The rediscovered techniques of open-fire cooking offer distinctive flavors and a unique culinary experience. Knowing which foods are most easily adapted to cooking in ashes and coals can be the key to successful hearth cooking. From ancient roasted egg recipes to techniques for avoiding exploding chestnuts, Cooking with Fire by Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers background and best practices of wood-fired cooking. The following excerpt is from Chapter 1, “A Fire and a Stick.”
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Roasting in Ashes and Coals
What can you roast by a fire using no utensils whatsoever? Most ingredients I’ve had success with in this mode exhibit a few common characteristics. Self contained, high-density items with moderate internal moisture (sweet potatoes, butternut squash) do well, because cooking by this method is low and slow and steady. It’s also good if the foods come equipped with a sacrificial layer that can be stripped away before eating (plantains, corn, garlic) since the cooking is done right down in the ashes, and some exterior charring and ash adhesion come with the territory.
Finally, it’s best to select candidates that are abundant and inexpensive (peanuts, potatoes), since there is usually some shrinkage. This sort of minimalist roasting, it must be admitted, is not the easiest to control. Inadvertent and tragic contact is sometimes made between the food and very hot burning coals; it can be tricky to tell if the foods are perfectly situated to cook evenly. And occasionally — especially when it’s dark and the party’s running into the wee hours — a few things just get lost in the ashes or explode.
All that being said, the technique has a good deal going for it, and not only for the obvious reason that you don’t need any tools. Like the traditional on-a-stick projects, it can be a great way to amuse guests around a campfire and let them take a hand in their own hearth-cooking projects. Most of all, with a little effort and attention it can yield very intensely flavored foods.
There are basically two ways to go about roasting with this technique, both requiring a fire that has burned hardwood long enough to accumulate a heap of coals and ashes. In one method, you bury the foods directly in the hot ashes; in the other, you set the foods near enough to the heat of the fire, within the hearth, that they simply roast. Both methods are slow going, which is not necessarily disadvantageous, since other sorts of cooking or merry-making may be carried out on all sides simultaneously.
Sometimes I use this technique as an entertaining way to produce late-night snacks for people who ate a real meal a few hours before. For example, as you transition your cookfire into a campfire after supper, why not bury some treats — chestnuts, say — in the ashes for later?
And done indoors, where often a lot of BTUs are just bouncing around a masonry hearth to no particular end, this type of roasting allows you to take advantage of collateral heat without a lot of fuss — think about a line of roasting onions perched on bricks behind, or to one otherwise idle side of, the fire while you spit-roast, stew, fry, or broil dinner.
Specific Pointers For Fire-Ready Foods
Potatoes. Scrub large potatoes clean, and towel dry. Bury them in a pile of hot ashes in a hot cooking hearth. After an hour turn them over and end-for-end, and rebury. From time to time you may lay a shovelful of new coals over the ashes, as long as they don’t make direct contact with the spuds. For very large russets, expect two hours’ baking. Smaller potatoes will take less time, of course, but are easier to lose.
To test, retrieve one potato from the ashes. Hold it in an old towel, and pinch it cautiously to feel for overall doneness. If it gives nicely, towel it clean, and repeat with the rest. A nineteenth-century cookbook author advises serving with cold butter, salt, and pepper.
Use large unpeeled onions. If you are cooking in an outdoor fire pit, you’ll need a fire of moderate size, preferably set down in the ground a bit, and with bricks (or stones) surrounding. Place the onions, pointy end up, so that they have the hot bricks at their backs and the fire in front of them, about 10 to 12 inches away. They may be sitting in a little bed of hot ashes or upon other hot bricks or stones. If you are cooking in a fireplace, set a row of bricks on edge near the fire, but out of the way, as a roasting pedestal for the onions. In both scenarios, rotate all the onions 90 degrees each time they begin to show some color (about every 15 or 20 minutes). If one side of your fire is much hotter than the other, switch them around after 45 minutes. These will take over an hour. One American cookbook of 1840 suggests parboiling the onions first, roasting them thus, and then peeling them to serve whole with just butter and salt, as a side dish. Incidentally, a roasted onion applied to the ear was about the commonest remedy for earache in nineteenth-century America.
Follow the same method as with onions (not the parboiling option).
You may use the potato method or the onion method. Cook until the potato oozes caramelizing juice. Peel after cooking if necessary for ash-free consumption.
Here is an exception to the low-heat/long-cooking rule. Take whole ears of corn (no need to fuss with the husks or silk in any way) and lay directly on a hot coal bed. The outer husks will scorch, but no matter; in fact, it’s all to the good. Turn the ears over and end-for-end to get even heating, and in short order you’ll end up with perfectly steamed, succulent corn on the cob. Test for desired degree of doneness by pulling the husk back for a look. Optionally, leave them on the coals a bit longer for some smoky caramelization of the kernels themselves.
To avoid explosions, use a small knife to make an incision in the shell of each chestnut. Bury in a hot hearth with hot ashes. Roast until nut is tender through, about 30 to 40 minutes.
Roast raw peanuts in the shell in hot ashes, stirring from time to time and testing occasionally, until the shells are brittle and the nuts crisp and tasty. Senegalese cooks roast peanuts submerged in hot sand for a nice even heat.
Set a whole butternut, acorn, or other hard squash on a moderately hot bed of coals and ash, turning it to roast evenly. When it is uniformly lightly charred, test it with a skewer or small knife where the flesh is thickest. When the squash is tender through, peel off the burnt exterior, halve it and seed it, mash or chop it, and season to taste or use in your favorite recipe. Or for rough fireside dining, simply halve or quarter the roasted squash, and scrape out seeds and stringy bits. Each diner adds a blob of butter and other seasonings and eats with a spoon.
An entirely bygone food going back to at least the days of Rome, the roasted egg is a creature more of poetry than of cookbooks, a trope of Shakespeare, Pope, and Scott that seems meant to convey the idea of reason or skill hidden in an unlikely guise. However, it is, or was, a real food, and one that, homely and simple as it seems, has indeed taken me a few passes to achieve, let alone perfect. Although cookbooks omit coverage, very good egg-roasting instructions may be found in Thomas Boys’s memoir from the Napoleonic Wars, in which he describes “a jolly old Spaniard” who took an egg, “cracked it at one end, and stuck it upright in the hot embers.” Boys’s verdict? “I beg to state that a roast egg — so roasted, i.e., done slowly in the embers — not only is altogether a different sort of thing from a boiled egg, but beats it to sticks: especially if washed down, as mine were on the present occasion, with a cup or two of good sound Spanish wine out of a leathern bag.” The Spaniard’s technique of perforating the small end of the egg is essential to successful egg roasting; as I happen to know they have a fatal tendency to explode if left intact. The other needful trick is plain old patience; for even cooking, the egg must be rotated on occasion in its ashen bed. Sir Walter Scott’s character Davie, an intellectually challenged innkeeper’s boy, was known as the best egg roaster in the highlands; he “lay with his nose almost in the fire, nuzzling among the ashes, kicking his heels, mumbling to himself, turning the eggs as they lay in the hot embers . . .”
A Few Takes on Ash-Roasted Vegetables
• Dress roasted onions with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, currants, mint, or oregano, and salt and pepper.
• Roast potatoes in the fire late at night, rescue from the ashes and set aside to peel for hash browns in the morning.
• Once you’ve pulled back the charred husks from your roast corn, gild the lily. Try dipping a lime quarter in tequila, rubbing the hot, well-browned corn ears with it, and sprinkling them with flavorful hot powdered red chile and kosher salt. Or for a dessert corn, brush the steamy ears with a mix of heavy cream and maple syrup. Grill over slow coals until golden brown and glazed.
• Serve roasted acorn squash halves with abundant garlic slivers fried in olive oil, chunks of goat cheese, chopped cilantro, and a sprinkle of salt.
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Reprinted with permission from Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking by Paula Marcoux and published by Storey Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Cooking With Fire.