Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Playing with Fire -- Cooking on my hearth (part 1)

I live in California and we are experiencing an El Nino winter:  wet and cold.  I know this is really nothing compared to the places that are being buried in snow and all that, but this is unusual weather for us.  The upside is that my yard is being watered regularly (hooray for the rain) and it has been cold enough for me to build a fire in my hearth and actually enjoy the heat it puts out.  It has been several years since this has happened!

I've built several fires in the last few weeks.  One day when I was watching one and wishing I had marshmallows to toast, it occurred to me that I could practice my demonstration cooking.  Why not?  I always need more practice and this would be using wood and embers instead of the charcoal I normally work with.  Also cooking in the enclosed fire place is different than an open pit.

The last time I tried this was in 2012 when I made Boston Baked Beans in my Dutch oven using charcoal.  You can read about it here:   Boston Baked Beans.

My first attempt was with a lovely piece of beef which I cut up to make shish kabobs.  These are chunks of meat and vegetables put on a skewer and cooked near the flames or over glowing embers.

I used the beef, big pieces of onion, thickly sliced mushrooms, and chunks of tomato.  Once the food was cooked (or close to it), I brushed the kabob with a honey-ginger sauce to give it some extra flavor and cooked it a few minutes more.

To add to the fun, I took several slices of sourdough bread, buttered and sprinkled with garlic powder, and wrapped them in foil.  This I put on some coolish embers to the side of the fire and turned it a few times while the kebabs cooked.

What I Learned

My primary experience in cooking shish kabobs is at the beach, working near a bonfire.  There is so much heat spread out in a big space that it is easy to cook the whole thing just by propping the skewer up against a rock and using the sand to keep it from tipping over.

So for my hearth I had to plan on where the skewer was going to be:  the tip needed to rest on something, the handle needed to rest on something where I could reach it easily for turning, and I needed to know where the heat was in order to cook things evenly.  These had to be sturdy locations because letting the food fall into the ashes and embers is not a tasty choice.

I also had to plan on where to place the skewer before it went into the fire and where to place it when it came out.  Also where I would hold the skewer to brush on the sauce.  This was drippy and messy and I really didn't want sauce all over the tiles in front of the fire.  So I had a bunch of platters handy and decided in advance which was going to do what job.

So I figured out to use a log that was not burning too much to hold the tip of the skewer and was pleasantly surprised to find the fire place screen was a good place to rest the handles.  That left a good open space in which to place the heat.

See the foil packet?
*Important:  When you put the food on the skewer, plan to leave several inches between it and the tip and it and the handle so the food is not touching the places that are supporting the skewer.

My first mistake was not spreading the hot embers out evenly beneath the skewers.  Most of the heat was near the tip and that meat cooked quickly and scorched a little.  The meat near the handle barely cooked and the veggies didn't cook much at all.  The onion was too raw for my taste, even with turning the skewers regularly to cook them on all sides and rotating their order to get each one near to the heat.

Looks good, but...
...some of the meat was too rare, while...
... the rest was just right.
What I realized is that I had planned on reversing the skewers at some point, which is silly because then the handles would have gotten too hot.

When I spread the heat out evenly, the meat along the whole skewer cooked at the same rate.  The veggies got cooked more but still the onions were too raw.  I think the next time I try this I will cut the onions smaller and perhaps brush the onions and mushrooms with oil before they get put on the skewer.

This had the heat spread better beneath the entire skewer.
The sauce still splashed some and I got drips on the tiles but they cleaned up easily.

The Verdict

The meal was good despite the raw onions.  Once I got the embers distributed correctly, the food cooked better and was tasty. The butter had melted on the bread.   I declare it a success in flavor and in experience.

Much, much better.
What is really important is managing the heat, paying attention to where the flames are and how hot the coals are.  I am so used to a gas stove and an electric oven that I don't have to think about the heat distribution!

Another aspect of fire management is keeping the flames that you are not using for cooking low enough that it is not uncomfortable to sit near while you work.  Since the weather was cold I was happy but if the fire had been bigger, I would have been sweating and feeling like I was cooking, too.

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