Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tips for Speeding Up Dinner Preparation for Campfire Cooking

Cooking over the campfire is a very rewarding experience and I enjoy the opportunity to cook for a group. Inevitably, when the fire finally gets going and I finally get the right coals for cooking, I am pressed for time and the group hovers around the fire waiting patiently and eagerly to eat. I feel pressured to feed them and take risks which sometimes effect the quality of the meal.

On Saturday evening, after riding 18 miles on horseback, I prepared Beef and Beer Stew loosely following this recipe:

1/3 cup finely chopped salt pork or bacon
2 ½ to 3 lbs. Beef stew meat
3 large onions, sliced
3 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
2 12 ounce cans beer
1 cup water
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
4 large potatoes, cubed
6 large carrots or parsnips, thickly sliced

Cook salt pork in a large stew pot until rendered. Add meat; cook and stir over medium high heat until lightly browned. Remove meat. Reduce heat to medium; add onions and cook until tender. Return meat to pot and add seasonings, beer, water, tomato paste and Worcestershire; stir to mix. Cover and simmer until beef is tender, about 1 ½ hours.

Add prepared vegetables; cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked, about 45 minutes.

We got back at 5PM and my preparations began, dinner at 6PM, I knew I was in trouble. I chopped up the fat back (salt pork without the salt), potatoes and carrots and onions just before I started the campfire. I used very dry hardwood and got the fire started around 6PM. Because I was pressed for time, as always it seems, I fried up the pieces of salt pork in the dutch oven until they were half liquid and half pork rinds. I browned up 4 pounds of stew beef, I then threw the onions directly in with the beef. I let the onions cook for 10 minutes. Then I dumped in the beer and vegetables and cooked everything for another 25 minutes. Total cook time was only an hour, a good hour and 15 minutes faster than the recipe called for. AT 7PM my group hungrily devoured the stew and pronounced it good.

How could I have made the same stew better in the same faster amount of time? Answer: dump in veggies that are already cooked. (NOTE: I'm not opposed to using canned veggies for canoe camping- burn out odors, crush flat, and pack them out very easily) If I had used canned cubed potatoes and carrots, and frozen chopped onions, I could have saved a ton of prep and cooking time. I could skip the cutting board entirely- why pack it if the food is already prechopped. In fact, all I would have needed to do was to chop up the fat back (salt pork) before the trip and put it into a ziplock bag or I could substitute lard or butter instead. Just remember, nothing calls people to a campfire faster than the small of frying bacon or salt pork.

Another suggestion, made by my father in law who was helping me, was to cube up steak instead of using stew beef. At first I laughed at the suggestion, after all this is stew and I was using "stew" beef, but once I ate it I realized why this was such a good idea. By speeding up the recipe, I wasn't stewing the beef and it was far from tender. My group of hungry customers would have eaten anything I put in front of them. Next time, if I cut up steak ahead of time, instead of using stew beef, the shorter cook time won't matter a bit.

This recipe was a hit. The aroma of beef cooking in beer was fantastic. The stew had a very nice flavor (even though I skipped the Worcestershire sauce and spices, and used cheap beer). I'll definitely cook it in the dutch oven again. Hopefully I'll remember my own quick preparation tips for speeding up dinner next year when I try to be both a participant and cook at this event.