BY TYLER FRANTZ
With social distancing the new normal, there’s no doubt stir-crazy Pennsylvania residents are looking for any excuse possible to get out of the house and breathe some fresh air.
Fortunately, there’s an enjoyable pastime that allows folks to do just that in a safe and responsible manner while putting delicious food on the family table.
Outdoor cooking is a low-and-slow leisure activity best reserved for pairing with a remote campfire ring, popup bucket chair and cold beverage in hand, but there’s no reason it can’t be adapted for application in your own back yard. For those not having a fire pit, now’s the time to build one or buy one online, because the weather is right and time is no longer a detractor for the majority of people ordered to stay at home anyway.
A pre-fabricated metal fire ring, or freestanding pit, can be purchased from a variety of online retailers, but one can also be built inexpensively with rocks, bricks or old recycled pavers. The metal rim of an old vehicle wheel works great too if you have access to one without traveling unnecessarily.
I’ve stockpiled a few grates from junk ovens over the years to utilize for outdoor cooking, but a piece of metal fencing wired to rebar works just as well as a makeshift grilling platform in a pinch. Believe it or not, I once saw a hunter grill a turkey over an old treestand platform, so the sky is the limit in terms of creative options, as long as you’re being safe and using common sense with the materials you select.
A pile of split and seasoned firewood, as well as an assortment of simple cooking tools, such as aluminum foil, skewers/tongs, leather gloves and cast iron pots and pans, completes the necessary equipment for the job. That is, aside from the obvious food ingredients you plan to incorporate into your meals.
When cooking over an open fire, it’s best to burn down most of the wood first, as a bed of hot coals provides steadier, more consistent heat and is much easier to control than a dancing flame atop burning firewood. Start your fire with some dry kindling, and add enough logs to work up a fair bed of coals while you prep your food for cooking.
One of my campfire staples is baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, baked beans cooked right in the can, and smoked deer sausage thrown either directly on the cooking surface or impaled on a metal skewer, depending on how many people I’m serving.
I love this because it requires very little prep work, freeing me up to do other things as opposed to spending hours getting ready to cook dinner.
Foil packets are super easy too. Double up two sheets of aluminum foil, add sliced veggies, butter and seasonings, maybe a fish fillet or two, seal it up with a slightly tented seam and set it on the cooking grate and check on it later. Clean up is a cinch.
Corn on the cob, presoaked in salted water, can also be grilled in such fashion within its own greenery prior to shucking. It doesn’t get much easier and tastes great with the added smoky flavor.
Those who own cast iron very much enjoy the simplicity of a slow-cooked stew simmered in a hot bed of coals, which can be prepared similarly to how you would cook in a crock pot. Wipe down the metal with olive oil, add your preferred ingredients, put the lid on, and insert right into the coals, perhaps even putting some coals on the lid for more even cooking.
Now, go put up your feet and relax. Your dinner will be ready in an hour or two.
A cast-iron frying pan makes a mean cowboy breakfast, too. Lead with bacon, follow with eggs and diced potatoes to soak up the grease, and you can even toast some bread for the finish.
This can be prepared while a pot of coffee steeps on the far side of the cooking grate. You’ll be feeling like Roy Rogers in no time.
Don’t forget dessert, which can be baked in a Dutch oven, a mountain pie maker or toasted on a pointed stick “s’more style.”
Just because we have to stay home doesn’t mean we absolutely must stay inside. We all still need to eat, so we might as well make it fun and enjoy the process.
Get outside and enjoy the elements of nature while serving up your next family feast by the fireside, where dinner is cooked low, slow and savory.
Frantz is president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org