Fireplace cooking may be a lost skill, but it's one you can regain with a little practice.
Except for Scouts toasting marshmallows or hotdogs on a stick over a camp fire, the skills of open fire cooking that fed our forebears for millennia are largely forgotten. The wrought iron tools and cast-iron utensils that baked many a venison stew, harbor-pollack chowder, or mess of ham and beans are relegated to antique shops. But much of the terminology lives on in the names of items still found on the kitchen shelves of today, and much of the old ironware is still cast — more for its curio value than for use. In the frantic hassle that passes for modern life, it is good on a chilly fall evening to light a grate fire and take the time to try your hand at fireplace cooking the way great-great-great-grandmother did. If the spit-roasted haunch turns out cold in the middle and the Yorkshire pudding burns you can always send out for a pizza or get some fish sticks out of the freezer and pop them into the microwave.
Any fireplace will happily cook while it heats — persuading your wood to do double duty. You can wrap sweet corn, potatoes, fresh-caught trout, and apples in tinfoil and bury it in the ash bank just as you would in a camp fire. But there's no timer or automatic thermostat to regulate a live fire for more complex recipes.
It takes constant attention to bake bread in a Dutch oven that is sitting in coals, with more coals shoveled into its dished top so the loaf cooks through and browns on top but doesn't come out raw in the middle and burnt to a char on the bottom. To maintain a simmer in the stew pot which is hanging by its bail from the trammel hook, the crane must be moved back and forth and the pot adjusted up and down while hot coals are continually moved around with a scuttle and ash rake.
You can have a crane that fits your fireplace wrought by a blacksmith or welded by a metal-working job shop. You can still find small stamped-steel coal scuttles for sale, but you'll have to fashion your own rake; they haven't been manufactured for a hundred years and more. A blacksmith or welder can make one by brazing a 1/4" x 2" x 4" plate of iron or ribbon steel to a handle made from a 2' steel rod with a loop fashioned at the end to hang it by. However, a small hand hoe from the garden will do fine so long as you don't let the wooden handle ignite.
Be sure to have on hand a more than ample supply of cooking wood: quarter and eighth splits of extra-well-dried, dense hardwood sticks for a long fire and a long-lived coal bed, plus plenty of shavings, splinters, and small kindling-size splits to liven the fire quickly if the biscuits threaten to fall. Best is a mixture of quick-igniting and hot-burning softwoods such as pine, and long-burning hardwoods such as hickory or oak.
Open the windows so you don't roast yourself along with supper, and perk up a banked or low, heating-type, hardwood-log fire until it's brisk enough to maintain a deep bed of live coals. For roasting on a spit, maintain a skirt of live coals under the burning logs so you can keep raking them out and under the roast. For frying on a gridiron or skillet, simmering beans in a footed pot, or baking in a Dutch oven, you'll also want to rake coals out onto the hearth and keep them replenished.
You will need a spit: a revolving horizontal wrought iron rod with a pair of sliding meat keepers that is rigged to be raised and lowered over the fire or fixed in place so you must continually replenish a coal bed beneath it. The motorized spits sold for charcoal grills are ready-made for the use, though you can have one made of wrought iron to the old patterns by a blacksmith.
Skewer a whole beef loin or rack of prime rib — bone in — and set in front of a hot fire with a good skirt of glowing coals. Keep the coal bed red. Place a long, narrow pan underneath to catch drippings or the fat in the roast will melt, fall into the coals, catch fire, and char the roast. Worse, some will vaporize and rise up the flue with smoke, to accumulate and increase danger of a flue fire. Plus, your hearth will develop a permanent grease spot. Turn the spit frequently and cook the meat to taste. (I cheat and use a meat thermometer, cooking until it shows 130°F — rare, but not still mooing, inside.) When the roast is nearly done, rake coals out around the pan to cook the Yorkshire pudding. When grease is sizzling brightly, add batter and cook until it rises and browns on top. Turn the pan occasionally to even out the cooking. If you have a reflector, place it in front of the meat and the pudding pan if you like. It will distribute the heat and reduce need for turning.
1 cup of bread flour
1 cup of whole milk
a pinch of salt
4 eggs — at room temperature
Mix first three ingredients together. Add eggs one at a time, whipping each one until batter is frothy. Refrigerate for several hours before cooking. Dump in pan containing hot fat and cook under the roast. The sides and middle will swell — cook until top is brown. Serve with a slab of beef and a lot of butter; this is one meal where you ought to forget about cholesterol. Pig out and enjoy yourself, then compensate by living on raw vegetables and yogurt for the rest of the week.
Ingredients can be fresh in the growing season or taken entirely from the smokehouse, root cellar, and canning shelves in midwinter.
FIrst, make the fish stock. In water to cover, simmer the following ingredients slowly until bones are mush: heads of two large saltwater fish (eyes and gills removed and discarded, cheeks and tongues of cod removed and saved for the chowder), and racks (bones with fillets removed and fins removed and discarded), along with a good amount each of celery leaves, chopped onion, a smatter of thyme, a bay leaf, and a two-finger pinch of whole black peppercorns. Strain and reserve stock. Feed strained-out hard parts to cats (who will love you forever). You can also use an 8-oz. bottle of clam juice per guest.
For each guest:
1 heaping tablespoon of diced salt pork or bacon — boiled to remove smoke flavor
1 very large or three medium Kennebec potatoes — diced and scrubbed well, skin on
1 small winter-keeping onion — skinned and diced
1 pound of white-fleshed ocean fish — skin off (Cod, pollack, halibut, and hake will all do. Try adding a slab of fresh salmon for the color — little flecks of gold floating in a milk-white base. Use refreshed salt cod if fresh fish is unavailable.)
1/2 pint light cream or whole milk (fresh or canned condensed milk, reconstituted)
1 chunk of fresh butter per bowl
salt to taste, fresh ground black pepper
Hang a boiling pot on the crane from the trammel chain, spreading the fire out in a deep coal bed under it. The pot should be within an inch of the hot coals. Maintain coal bed, adjusting heat by moving pot back and forth on the crane. Toss diced salt pork into pot and heat until it sizzles; cook until fat is rendered and bits of pork are browned to chitlins.
Pull the crane out so you can get into the pot without singeing your eyebrows and remove chitlins with a slotted spoon. Add chopped onions and cook in hot fat until translucent (you shouldn't have to return a good iron pot to the heat). Add diced potatoes and cover with hot fish stock. Cover pot, return to heat, hang on trammel, and adjust crane so it cooks just hard enough that occasional little puffs of steam escape from under lid.
When potatoes are cooked but still crisp, pull out crane and add fish. Stir until fish lose their glutinous look and turn white. With crane pulled out, wait till simmering dies and add room-temperature milk. Let milk warm to steaming, but don't let it so much as simmer. Ladle into bowls, add butter, grind black pepper or sprinkle a little paprika on top, and serve with big chowder crackers to raves from the hungry throng.
Cool and refrigerate any that isn't consumed and reheat the next day, when it will be better. Three-day chowder is better still, so long as it is chilled any time it is not being heated to near boiling. Never bring to a milk-curdling low boil or you'll suffer for it. At four days the flavor gets metallic, the potatoes turn gray, and if it weren't for the flecks of butter on top you'd have a hard time telling it from canned.