Sunday, July 6, 2008

Iron on the Fire

You can keep your Calphalon pans and your tricked-out Wolf range, your All-Clad and Viking, all your high-tech non-stick dual-fuel convection-roasted induction-grilled modern nonsense.

Give me a campfire and a cast iron skillet. And I will not make you wieners and beans. And I will not heat up a can of Dinty Moore. If I make pancakes...well, I'd let Mary do that.

What I will make with that most basic of kitchens is my very most favorite kind of food, dishes possessed of...what would I call it? Primordial elegance and savor. That says it pretty well.

We've been enjoying lots of campfire skillet meals this summer while camping on the land we purchased in Wisconsin last winter. "Leap Day Folly," "Le Val d'Hiver," "Woodtick Acres"--the land has tried on quite a few titles since we closed the deal on February 29. Now we just call it "The Orchard," for the 60-plus neglected, but still producing, apple trees scattered over the land in a not-very-orchard-like arrangement (we keep finding new apple trees back in the bush, with brambles, thorn trees, birch and poplar grown up around them). But even at home, with all the modern conveniences and some pretty nice equipment (All-Clad and Magna-Lite; Dacor), we still cook this way quite often.
Here's our outdoor kitchen, dining room, and cocktail lounge:

What I particularly like about this method is that the meat, seared directly over the coals, has all the smoky campfire char you want, but it finishes cooking in the pan, so the juices that would be lost to the coals annoint the vegetables, and everything comingles with the herbs and spices, the garlic and onion, etc.. In the end it's a one-dish meal cooked all or mostly outdoors--an excellent thing for a warm summer evening.

For the meal pictured here we used these vegetables, all from the market or our garden:

Baby turnips
New potatoes
Young kale, mustard, and turnip greens
Green garlic
Spring onions

We halved and blanched the turnips and potatoes for maybe five minutes in boiling water, 'til they're barely tender. We put the skillet on the grill and added some oil, then the onion and garlic, the turnips and potatoes, then the greens. When the greens were wilted and the roots starting to brown, we set the skillet aside and turned to the meat.

These are lamb sirloin chops that were marinated in a little olive oil, thyme, green garlic, salt and pepper. We grilled them for four or five minutes a side, to brown them nicely but not cook them through. Then we nestled them into the pan with the vegetables and let it all cook together, turning the meat and stirring the vegetables a couple of times, for another ten minutes. We plated it up, deglazed the pan with a slosh of red wine and swirled in a little butter for a very simple pan sauce. Voila:

Just because you're eating outdoors, there's no reason to be deprived of all that civilization has given us.

A wood fire is the ideal heat source for cooking in cast iron, which is great at holding heat but doesn't conduct it all that evenly. With the coals spread out beneath the skillet you get really even heat and great browning with little danger of burning.

On the second night of this particular outing we seared some country-style pork ribs over the coals and finished cooking them with a white bean and vegetable stew we made mostly at home.

We do fish this way, as well (WARNING! Very non-local--for Minnesota or Wisconsin--ingredients ahead): Sear a piece of salmon, halibut, or striped bass over the coals, add to the cast iron skillet where, with some lardons of good bacon, onions or leeks and garlic have been sweating, and where a few clams and/or mussels have opened in a splash of white wine. Grill some asparagus, some chard or summer squash, chop up the veg and toss them in at the last. Of course you could use a local fish like walleye, whitefish, or lake trout, and we certainly have. But edible shellfish are not so common in our local waters.

This is also THE WAY to make paella. I'll devote a whole post to that later. Right now Mary is packing the car and we're trying to get out of town, headed for the orchard, of course. The cast iron skillet is seasoned, packed, and ready to cook.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

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