The scents of wood smoke and burnt sugar remind many people of times spent around a campfire singeing marshmallows for s’mores.
Few people ever move beyond cooking marshmallows or at most, a hot dog on a stick, over a fire.
A pair of recent books aim to inspire people to rediscover the joys of cooking over fire: “Smoke: New Firewood Cooking,” by Houston chef Tim Byres, whose book won a James Beard book award earlier this year, and “Cooking With Fire,” by former archaeologist and food historian Paula Marcoux.
Marcoux says the renewed interest in firewood cooking dovetails with broader trends: a desire to eat more local foods, to know where food comes from, to move away from processed foods.
“It is touching a nerve. People are tired of being divorced from their food,” she said. “Turning on an electric stove or gas stove — those are things that don’t have the same kind of satisfaction or the social life as around the fire.”
Cooking over a fire is more than meal; it becomes an event. Not only does it allow people to reconnect with a childhood pleasure, but now as adults they have a kitchen full of tools and skills at their disposal.
This style of cooking cannot be rushed. The food tastes better cooked slowly — a lesson learned by anyone who has tasted a blackened marshmallow with a springy center. It creates an opportunity to gather together, tell stories, sip a beer or a glass of wine and savor the experience.
It will pay off in the end in terms of taste, said Johnson & Wales cooking instructor Robert Brener, who built an outdoor fireplace for cooking at his Charlotte, North Carolina, home six years ago.
“You cannot create the amount of heat with gas or electric,” he explained. “You can’t get man-made heat that hot.”
That high heat, Brener said, creates a better crust and caramelization, as well as that smoky flavor: “You get much better texture and a much better flavor profile.”
One indication that cooking with wood may be catching on in the Carolinas: There’s enough interest to support a company that sells locally harvested firewood.
Bud Williford started Carolina Cookwood, which is based in Upstate South Carolina, in 2009. His restaurant customers include North Carolina and South Carolina locations of national chains, Firebirds and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, as well as Charlotte restaurants Roosters, Fahrenheit, Upstream and Mimosa Grill. Bags of Williford’s wood chunks, a product for grilling and smoking enthusiasts, are sold at Whole Food stores across the state.
For some, the obsession with cooking over fire begins with camping trips or Scouts.
Eric Krause got involved with Scouting with his 12-year-old son, Campbell, and Pack 3 at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte. Starting as Cub Scouts, Krause said, the boys learn how to light a fire (with adult supervision, of course); how to toast a marshmallow; how to make what is called a “hobo pouch” (pieces of food in a foil packet and placed on the coals); and eventually graduate to cooking with a Dutch oven.
“What boy doesn’t like to play with fire?” Krause asked. “So we’re teaching them how to do it responsibly. The boys walk away feeling empowered. … It’s great to watch.” Krause now competes on a barbecue team.
Other aficionados are seduced by different wood-fired foods, like bread for N.C. State University assistant professor David Auerbach, who built a wood-fired oven in his Durham, N.C., backyard 16 years ago. Or tomato pies, like Bob Radcliffe, who holds monthly pizza dining events at his Lynch Creek Farm in Franklin County to use the wood-fired oven that he built.
That desire to create a space to indulge in wood-fired cooking delights Marcoux. She says so many people have told her: “Your book inspired me to make a fire pit in my backyard.”
That, she said, is her greatest pleasure: “So many people did it. I’m excited to inspire people to do the simplest things.”
What you will need
Fire pit: Fireplace or a cleared space in the yard. (Fire pits can be as sophisticated or humble as you like. It can be lined with bricks or rocks or not. At its simplest, just pick a patch of dirt clear of debris and away from structures.)
Wood: Kindling (twigs, pine needles, small pieces of bark, pine cones, paper); small pieces of softwoods, like pine, to start the fire; and larger logs of hardwoods, such as oak, maple and hickory.
Tools: Lighter or matches, fireplace tools or a shovel are necessary; leather barbecue gloves can be helpful.
Cooking tools: Long metal skewers, grilling forks and grilling spatula, a flat griddle and bricks or a cast-iron skillet will be needed for campfire baklava.
Adapted from “Cooking With Fire,” by Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, 2014).
2 Italian frying peppers, seeded and diced
2 Hungarian wax peppers, seeded and diced
1 large white onion, diced
Fat pinch of salt
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf rye bread or other rustic bread
1 lb. very best quality slab bacon, with rind
Mix peppers, onion, salt, vinegar and black pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
Slice bread, about 4 to 6 slices. Toast slices and set aside.
Cut bacon into oblongs of about 1 by 2 inches. Then carefully cut crosswise repeatedly into the meaty face of your piece of bacon, making parallel cuts about 1/4 inch apart; do not cut all the way through. Imagine that the chunk of bacon is a little book, and that the rind is the binding.
Place several spoonfuls of pepper-onion mixture on top of the toasted bread. Have a plate close at hand while cooking the bacon.
Thread skewer through the “bacon book.” Use a fire shovel or stick to drag out some glowing coals in front of the fire, making a nice coal bed.
Now everyone roasts his or her own bacon over the coals. This can be slow going and cannot be rushed. Turn to cook all around. As bacon sizzles, pull off the heat and let drippings fall on the bread. Once bacon is crispy all over, you can pull off chunks and top the bread. Or remove bacon, chop it before topping the bread.
Yield: 6-8 servings.
This recipe requires a flat griddle. Our recipe tester used the cast-iron one intended for her gas range, perched on bricks over a bed of hot coals. A cook could also improvise by setting a cast-iron skillet on top of some coals. Either way, barbecue gloves are essential to place the griddle or the skillet over the coals. Adapted from “Cooking With Fire,” by Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, 2014).
7 oz. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt
2/3 to 3/4 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup water
6 Tbsp. butter, melted
Make dough: about an hour before you intend to bake them, mix flour, salt and 2/3 cup water together in a small mixing bowl with a fork. Add a bit more water as necessary to make the dough come together. Knead dough until it is very smooth and uniform. (You may have to dip your fingers in more flour to be able to work the dough.)
Divide dough in four equal pieces and knead each one into a nice, smooth ball. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for an hour.
Combine walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. Combine honey and water in a small measuring cup. Stir to thin honey and set aside.
Heat flat griddle over a bed of coals.
Lightly flour work surface. Take one ball of dough and press it into a disk. Flour a rolling pin and roll dough into as large a circle as possible. Pick up dough and place your hands, knuckles upward and under center of dough circle. Gently stretch your fingers and hands apart, rotating dough to stretch it evenly.
When dough center is pretty thin, move on to stretching the edges. Take dough by the edge and work your way around the perimeter, stretching little sections as you go. If you make a little tear near the edge, do not worry; it will be buried in the pastry. Be careful not to rip the center.
Place pastry back on a very lightly floured surface. Brush surface of dough with melted butter and deposit one-quarter of the filling in a 3-inch square in the center. Fold the upper and lower edges in part way, covering the filling. Brush a touch more butter on any unbuttered surfaces, then follow suit with the left and right flaps. You should end up with a nice, compact, square packet. Repeat with three remaining balls of dough and filling.
If you have a clay pot, place honey water in it and nestle that in the coals to bring to a simmer. If not, just warm the honey water in the microwave and set aside.
Put as many of the pastry packets as will fit onto the hot griddle. Brush any exposed unbuttered surfaces with melted butter. Bake for 4 to 6 minutes on one side. Flip. Brush with butter and bake another 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from griddle to a plate. Cut in half diagonally and drizzle with honey. Enjoy immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.
This is the campfire version of grilled cheese. Have toasted slices of your favorite bread on a plate nearby. Use a skewer, grilling fork or a stick to impale a 1-inch cube of cheese — such as cheddar, Gouda, Muenster or whatever is your favorite — on the tip. Hold skewer over bed of coals, turn slowly for even exposure to heat. No quick movements. When cheese starts to drip, move away from the coals and use the bread to catch the drips. Return to heat. Repeat. Be attentive and ready in case the cheese falls off the skewer into the coals.
Cheese and bread can always be enhanced. Consider these toppings alone or in combination: mustard, fig jam, mango chutney, tomato jam, thinly sliced onion, tomato slices, avocado, sliced apple or pear, prosciutto, sliced olives, jalapeno slices, chowchow and olive tapenade. Or better yet: top with some toasted hunks of slab bacon from the Romani Bacon recipe.
Adapted from “Cooking With Fire,” by Paula Marcoux (Storey Publishing, 2014).
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.