One of my cooking teachers once told me:
There are no mistakes in the kitchen. Only learning opportunities.
This was her response to a tray of burnt cornbread muffins. When you make as many mistakes as I do, this philosophy is a good philosophy to grab ahold of and expand to cover more territory, like a campfire and life in general.
Most of my culinary mistakes are committed when I’m making bread, and when I’m cooking over a campfire. I don’t repeat the same failure- my mistakes come in a spectacular, multi-colored array of overturned goals. I learn new things with every failure, and I have all the faith in the world that one day all my assorted failures will come together to form something resembling wisdom. One day.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of the ways I have failed over a campfire.
- I wasn’t able to start the fire to begin with. Fire starting is a sophisticated skill of its own, and I have found a good teacher. Just like all living things, fires begin from tiny bits. You have to begin with paper, then the smallest of twigs, then the smallest of sticks, and build and build your way up to the logs.
- I tried to cook over the flames instead of over the smoldering wood coals. A fire has to be somewhat mature before it will generate enough heat to boil water or sizzle bacon.
- I’ve tried to cook things in aluminum packets. Heat regulation is a particular problem with aluminum. I’ve only ever been able to successfully cook potatoes in this way. Other attempts of food creation have ended up burnt on the outside, and raw on the inside.
I’ve tried to learn from friends. Once a friend told me that she had a great camping recipe for spaghetti, and that she would be happy to share it with me. I was so impressed- the sheer brilliance required to cook pasta over a campfire seemed beyond me. Then we went camping, and she busted out her propane camp stove and made spaghetti over two burners. It was delicious, but it wasn’t cooked over a campfire.
This past weekend I found something that worked. A cast-iron pot with three legs. These guys inspired me and gave me the required confidence boost:
There’s a storied history to the cast-iron dutch oven. Here in the U.S., our westward trailblazers all had one in their covered wagons. They were so valuable, that wills often specified the inheritors of the cast iron pots.
Here is the victorious recipe I made in the cast-iron. Adapted from a little booklet camping cookbook I bought in the Lake District last summer. This recipe has the worst name in the world, but it was one of my few culinary campfire triumphs.
Lumpy Cottage Pie
- 2 pounds high quality minced beef
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 12 small red potatoes, chopped into roughly 1/2 inch cubes
- one package of frozen peas
- 3 tablespoons Mexican oregano
- olive oil
Fry off the onions in olive oil for a few minutes. Add a half cup or so of water and the potatoes, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the beef, the Mexican oregano, and the salt and pepper. Brown the beef, cover, and simmer again for 15 or so minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Add the peas and cover. Serve after five minutes.