Beyond hot dogs: Gourmet open-fire cooking

Put the marshmallows back on the shelf. Find a campsite with a fire pit, but leave the hot dogs at the supermarket.

Camping doesn’t have to mean settling for a spongy lump of bleached sugar and ground-up swine scraps anymore.

If homemade bread, roasted lamb and baklava don’t come to mind when you think camping, think again. A campfire cooking renaissance is alive on the pages of “Cooking With Fire.”

Author Paula Marcoux has produced 320 pages that would convince any chef that simplicity doesn’t have to mean bland. At the same time, she shows a novice that outdoor cooking doesn’t have to be complex.

“Cooking With Fire” unveils age-old techniques and recipes that were left behind during an era of Foreman grills and hybrid barbecue units.

“Fire allows you to actually access the flavors of the past,” Marcoux said. “There are people that are buying grills that are $1,000, and the food doesn’t taste like anything, and there are people that are cooking over nothing, and it tastes incredible – so there’s got to be something to it.”

An archaeologist, food historian, innovative cook and bread-oven builder, Marcoux embraces cooking-on-a-stick, but with a gourmet touch. She has compiled 100-plus wood-fire recipes, accompanied by colorful instructions, historical place-setters and drool-worthy images.

The book ranges from stabbing meat with the end of a stick and holding it near flames to creating multi-topping pizzas, and building the outdoor ovens to bake them in.

The cookbook guides a cook through each step – from where to find kindling for a small fire to how to choose the materials for a bread oven.

While her 1-acre property is scattered with homemade versions of historical ovens and experimental cooking contraptions, a backyard brick oven isn’t necessary to put the techniques Marcoux shares into action. For that matter, it’s not even necessary to have a backyard. Many of the meals can be made anywhere with few materials and very little preparation.

The author’s favorite meal in the book is one of the simplest: roasted lamb leg on a string.

A lamb leg is the perfect shape for a twisting-string roast, but any similarly sized and structured piece of meat can be cooked by suspending it on an open fire. All you need are a piece of twine, something relatively sturdy to hang it from, a pan to catch the grease and a few hours of spare time to watch the meat twirling above the flames.

“It is ultimate simplicity but it really comes out the most deliciously that a lamb roast could ever come out,” Marcoux said. “It is so laid-back. There is really nothing to do once you hang this thing up. You are happy just keeping your fire at the right level, and if it gets too cool you can move the lamb leg closer to the fire or build the fire up, and if it gets too hot you just move it away.”

Marcoux’s simple recipes provide an easy access point for people to get into cooking using ancient techniques.

The author, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., first became obsessed with cooking on wood fires in 1987 while working at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum. It all began with flipping flapjacks for her co-workers on a wood stove, and lead to a path of rediscovery.

The liberating feeling that comes with cooking on an open fire lead Marcoux to write a book that would make it possible for anyone to experience cooking on flames. She wanted to avoid losing would-be enthusiasts in what could have been dense content of food history.

Instead Marcoux weaves historical elements throughout the book to bring context to the old cooking styles, but keeps the tone conversational so as not to lose the budding cook’s attention.

As Marcoux has toured festivals and workshops around the country, her hands-on workshops have been swarmed by eager learners, backyard chefs, camping fanatics, backpackers, back-to-the-landers and “baking kooks like me,” Marcoux said.


Twine-roast leg of lamb

Serves 10 to 14

Unless you have the luxury of butchering your own lamb or buying directly from a slaughterhouse, the leg you purchase will most likely have had the handy string-attachment point known as the “heel” sawn off. The author provides and opportunity to get in touch with your inner orthopedic surgeon with instructions for preparing the lamb leg for hanging.

How long will it take to cook? Indoors, with a fireplace jamb backing the heat against the roast, it will scarcely take any longer than baking it in a conventional oven – about 2 hours. Outdoors on a winter night with a cold wind snatching at the heat, plan on around twice that.


1 leg of lamb, full bone-in

10 cloves garlic

3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

A bunch of rosemary or thyme, tied together as a basting brush (optional)

2 tablespoons dry mustard

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 to 2 tablespoons water, as needed

1/2 cup lamb, chicken, or beef stock or wine or water or some of each


Drill a clean hole, making sure there are no sharp edges.

Thread string through and make a square knot.

Suspend using a knot that won’t slip, like a bowline.

Use a rolling hitch to attach the other end of the string to a tripod. Or use two round turns and two half hitches to attach to a chain.



If you are roasting poultry, truss compactly and, if the bird is larger than a game hen, run at least two lengths of the twine through the body cavity. Join them together above the neck area, and form a hanging loop, experimenting with it to make certain that the fowl will hang securely and as plumb as possible. Even a little slouching or leaning will have a considerable negative effect on the evenness of roasting.

(Historic sources indicate that roasting poultry was possibly carried out by merely looping the twine around the legs of the bird. A modern grocery-store chicken rigged up thus would signal doneness by utterly slumping off its drumstick bones, I’m afraid. Attempt this only with a backyard fowl that has the body integrity that comes from supporting its own weight in life and pecking at bugs and so on.)


From 4 to 24 hours ahead, season the lamb: Wipe the meat dry. Sliver 8 of the garlic cloves, and using a very small sharp-pointed knife, make incisions all over the roast and insert the garlic into them. Massage the leg gently with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt and plenty of pepper. Cover and chill, but bring to room temperature before roasting.

Figure out the logistics for suspending the lamb as described previously and get a nice hardwood fire burning. Remember that you will want the lamb to have room to spin unencumbered a few inches away from, and slightly diagonally above, the coal bed. The fire will continue to burn smartly in a more or less parallel plane to the leg, but a foot or more away.

When you have a deep bed of coals under the fire, use a fire shovel to push the actively flaming wood to the opposite side of the hearth from where the roast will hang. Hang the leg of lamb up from the attachment point you have arranged, and double-check to make sure it is entirely secure before you step away. It will probably start spinning slowly of its own accord; encourage it along by twirling the shankbone in the direction it seems to want to go. Place a pan beneath the roast to catch the drippings. Draw some coals closer to the pan, so that you have a lovely steady bed of coals sloping from it up toward the actively burning logs. Look critically at the arrangement. Visualize exactly how the leg is exposed to the heat. What can you do to ensure the most even cooking? Probably one thing is to feed the fire more wood, from the side away from the roast. You are starting the coals that will come into play in 40 minutes.

That’s really all you have to do for the next few hours: Keep the leg rotating slowly (which requires very little attention), and provide a nice bed of coals and brisk fire at appropriate distances from the roast. It’s fun and picturesque, but scarcely necessary, to brush the roast with the drippings using a bundle of herbs. It pays to be aware of the movements of any dogs or other unrestrained carnivores in the vicinity.

As the roast turns, you can mix up the mustard plaster any time you like. Mince together 2 cloves of garlic and 1 teaspoon of salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Stir into 11/2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the mustard and flour, and as much water as it takes to make a somewhat drippy paste. Set aside until needed.

When the roast seems to be about three-quarters done (say, an internal temperature of 120°F or so), apply the mustard plaster. Use a large pastry brush and just lather it on the leg of lamb on all sides. Get a fresh bed of coals set up and continue roasting until the internal temperature of the roast is 145°F, then inspect your handiwork. If the plaster has not firmed up into an irresistible crust, build up your fire to provide one last blast of heat. Ideally, the plaster will be crispy and the lamb will approach 150°F at the same moment.

Get someone to help nudge a warm platter under the roast while you snip the string. (Believe me, it is not hard to rustle up helpers at this point.) Place the leg of lamb, loosely tented with some foil, in a warm place to rest for 20 minutes. Strain the drippings into a small nonreactive pot and heat in the remaining coals, adding the stock. Boil for a few minutes, taste, and correct seasoning.

Carve the roast and serve with the sauce.


Campfire baklava

Serves 4

You’ll need a campfire that has burned down to coals, a griddle, and some bricks or rocks to prop the griddle up over the coals.



7 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

2/3 to 3/4 cup lukewarm water, approximately


3/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup water

To assemble:

4 tablespoons butter, melted


More than an hour ahead, make the dough. Mix the flour, salt, and 2/3 cup water together in a small mixing bowl with a fork, adding a bit more water as necessary to make the dough come together. Knead the dough until it is very smooth and uniform.

Divide the dough into four equal pieces (about 4 ounces each) and knead each one into a nice smooth ball. Cover airtight and let rest about an hour.

When ready to bake:

Make the filling by stirring together the walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.

Assemble the packets:

Depending on how much you like to multitask, either start preheating your griddle now, or assemble all four pastries first, and then turn your full attention to cooking them.

Flour your work surface and remove any jewelry from your fingers and wrists. Take one ball of dough and press it into a disk. Using a straight rolling pin, roll it into as large a circle as possible. Pick up the dough and place your hands, knuckles upward, under the center of the dough circle. Gently stretch your fingers and hands apart, rotating the dough to stretch it evenly.

You will soon find that the center has stretched pretty thin, but the edges are holding you back. (Hold the dough up toward a window or a light source and the awkward thick places become immediately apparent.) Now, working quickly and gently, take the dough by an edge and work your way around the perimeter, stretching little sections as you go. If you make a little tear by the edge, no matter; it’ll be buried in the pastry. Be careful, though, not to rip the center.

When you get to the point where you’re sure you’re about to wreck it, place the pastry back on a very lightly floured surface. Brush the surface of the dough with butter and deposit one-quarter of the filling in a 3-inch squarish blob in the center. Fold the upper and lower dough edges in partway, covering the filling. Brush a touch more butter on any unbuttered surfaces, then follow suit with the left and right flaps. You should have a nice compact square packet. Continue with the remaining pastry and filling.

Bake the baklava:

If you haven’t already done so, start preheating your griddle over a medium-low fire. Place one or more packets on the hot surface, brushing any exposed unbuttered surfaces with butter. Bake for about 4 to 6 minutes per side, until golden brown and puffed up. (If you have a large griddle, you may be able to cook all four at once.)

Meanwhile, in a small skillet or clay pot, stir together the honey and water. Place down in the coals of the fire and remove from the heat as soon as it arrives at a bare simmer.

When the baklava packets are crispy and golden brown, remove them to a cutting board. With a large knife, cut each into four quarters, and transfer them neatly to a small bowl. Pour a quarter of the syrup over each pastry and enjoy right away.


Hearth bannock

The English author of an 1828 baking manual described Scots cottagers using pea, bean, oat or barley flour to make “hearth bannocks”: “A certain quantity of meal is taken and made into a very stiff dough; while the person is making and working the dough, a quantity of dried wood is burning on the hearth. . . . As soon as the wood is consumed, so far as not to give forth any smock, the hearth is swept clean, the bannock put on it, and the glowing embers around and over it, and suffered to remain so until the bread is baken. All who have eaten of this bread give it an excellent character; but it is nothing the worse of a piece of good fresh butter to help it.”

The author followed his directions, but used wheat flour like the Bedouin. If you should get your hands on some really fresh whole-wheat flour – or, better, emmer, einkorn or spelt – this would be a good way to get in touch with some real antiquity.


12 ounces bread flour

4 ounces whole-wheat flour

2 teaspoons salt

About 11/2 cups very warm water


Make a hardwood fire in a clean hearth (i.e., no residual heavy metals or glass from past fires), or on the desert floor, beach, or forest, for that matter. A large pile of brush or branches works great for fuel, leaving coals that are uniformly small. You’ll want to burn it for an hour or so.

As soon as your fire’s started, mix together all the ingredients, then knead briefly to make a very stiff dough. Keep the dough in an airtight container until your fire is almost ready, at least 30 minutes. Take it out and knead again for a few minutes on a well-floured surface. Round up into a nice ball and cover. Allow to rest another 10 minutes, then pat it out into a disk about 1/2 inch thick.

The Bedouin do all this work on a heavy cloth, and then use that to get the dough into the proximity of the fire; you can do the same or use a peel, a cookie sheet, or a cutting board. Use a stick or a shovel to push all the coals and ashes to one side. Lay the dough into the center of the hearth, and push the ashes and coals back over, completely covering the dough.

After 15 to 20 minutes, poke a stick alongside to find the disc. If it is rigid, pry it out, flip it over and re-cover. If not, try again in a few minutes. Bake 15 to 25 minutes longer, until pretty hard. Pry it out again and thump it briskly to jar loose any extraneous bits.

We enjoy it with olive oil and salt, in the mode of focaccia; ancient Sumerians loved rich broth and beer, if you’d like to reach further back in time for accompaniment ideas.

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