Essential gear for the outdoor cook
Half a century ago, my uncle gave me great advice: “If you want to live the life of an outdoorsman, you better learn to cook. You won’t always have a mother or wife around to prepare meals. “
My uncle was an excellent cook and taught me a lot about the basics of camp cooking. Oh, he didn’t cook anything fancy, just good ‘camp food’, but he knew how to get by around a campfire and Dutch kettle or Coleman stove.
I took his advice to heart and discovered years ago that I loved camp cooking. Over the years, I’ve learned from camp cooks in the Far North to fly fish the lakes of Saskatchewan to awesome cooks or “el cocineras” in Mexico. The camp kitchen is really quite basic, the key to preparing a tasty meal has a lot to do with controlling the heat, especially when cooking over a wood fire.
Cast iron is the camp cook’s best friend. It retains heat well and is great for everything from frying over high heat to slow cooking meats at low temperatures. A wood fire obviously doesn’t have knobs like an indoor stove to adjust the heat, so learning how to manage the heat by placing charcoal or embers from a hardwood fire is a must; too much heat under a dutch kettle will burn and not enough on top will not be conducive to cooking.
I’ve cooked on everything from a pit in the ground to hickory coals to an electric smoker and all sorts of camp stoves that use both propane and wood as fuel. These days, I use multiple stoves to cook my meals outside.
At home or at camp with electricity, I always rely on my Smokin Tex Electric Smoker (www.smokintex.com) for slow cooking meat and poultry. I used to stay up all night feeding wood with my “stick burner” smokers, but I discovered years ago how easy it is to put wood in the box. smoke from my electric smoker, turn the dial on the thermostat and let the meat cook slowly. night while I sleep. I rely on my electric smoker to make pulled pork from wild hogs for slow smoking sausages and hams.
But there are times when I need to grill some steaks or chops at camp or possibly fry some fish over an open fire. I have a small smoker that I found at Bucees that is only about 20 inches long and built exactly like a large smoker, with a chimney. It is ideal for quickly cooking a few steaks or burgers over charcoal. It has a side vent to allow air to flow away from the chimney and the flame is easily controlled by lowering the lid to keep the fire at a 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 equipment for frying fish or making stew or gumbo at camp.
I also have a Coleman grill that I have used for many years. It is fueled by small propane cylinders that screw into a fitting on the grill. I found it great for cooking fajita meat or a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage.
When cooking fajitas for larger groups, I have a wok my friend makes me out of 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 of scrambled eggs, sausage and potatoes to feed a large crowd.
I also learned some camp cooking tips from an older gentleman I spent a lot of time with. The late Dubb Wallace grew up in a time when fast food restaurants weren’t located on every street corner. He used to talk about trips from West Texas to New Mexico in the early forties in their Dodge truck.
“We would pull off the road at sunset and the kids would collect wood to use for a cooking fire,” Dubb recalled. time we’d be eating a good meal out of the tailgate of that old truck.”
Dubb’s father was a fur trapper in West Texas, and Dubb spends a few weeks at fur camp with his father and mother over Christmas vacation each year. Dubb said they keep a big Dutch kettle on the coals 24 hours a day. They add turkey, venison, wild goat meat or whatever they have to the vegetables and bury the oven in the ground , removing the coals 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 get ice cream or electricity to run a fridge.
I know how slow cooking in cast iron tenderizes even the toughest cuts of meat. The typical evening meal at the time was their Dutch ‘stew’ and homemade biscuits. Later, I tried this simple dish myself and can vouch for its quality!
Even in today’s modern world, it’s good to know how to cook tasty meals outdoors over the flame of a propane burner or a wood fire. If you’re new to Dutch kettle cooking, try making berry cobbler using charcoal as fuel. You don’t even have to do it from scratch; there are very tasty packaged cobbler mixes at the grocery store!
Blueberries will soon be in season; consider choosing a few quarts, add sugar and butter to a Dutch kettle, and top with your favorite cobbler mix. Place the coals on top and around the edge below. Leave to cook for about 40 minutes. Frozen pie shells work well too; you just need to add a little cinnamon and maybe a squeeze of lemon juice for more flavor!
Watch Luke’s weekly outdoor radio show on www.catfishradio.org.