A half-dozen years behind the line left me unprepared for an authentic culinary experience.
To a professional cook, the thought of working with fire is not particularly intimidating. I’ve spent almost seven years sweating over gas- and wood-burning grills. I’ve pulled steaming loaves of bread from pizza ovens with my bare hands. I can keep a clay oven at 800 degrees for hours. I can tell when a steak is medium-rare by its smell alone.
But when I took my first-ever backwoods camping trip to celebrate my 30th birthday this year, my promise to cook dinner over the campfire left me unnerved. For days I stressed about what to make, how to pack it, what tools to bring, and whether I would end up serving my husband and our four closest friends raw chicken and burnt potatoes.
I read up on techniques and recipes — the blogs all agreed advanced preparation will make or break the meal. The day before we left for the Adirondacks, I hit the market for mushrooms, tender asparagus, chicken quarters, potatoes, herbs, lemon, and lots of garlic. I chopped and trimmed and smashed and squeezed, zipping and crimping each component into bags and foil packets.
After we arrived, I meticulously laid everything out, in order, with salt and pepper and olive oil at the ready. And then I looked around. “OK, so who brought firewood?”
Not only had I forgotten fuel, but I didn’t even really know how to build a fire, let alone with damp logs and freezing temperatures. Thankfully, our group’s resident Boy Scout got the flames roaring. Of course I had also forgotten fire tools, but he had come prepared — Scout’s honor! — with a spade and leather, heat-proof gloves. We settled into the evening with tin cups variously filled with wine, hard cider, and beer. What followed was one of the best cooking experiences of my life.
Despite being a campfire novice, I knew at least to preheat the skillet. I knew that roasted potatoes take a while to become tender, and that acid, herbs, and seasoning are musts-haves. As the chicken hit the pan, the sizzles and pops drowned out the sounds of rushing water from the nearby brook, and my friends cheered as I turned over the thighs to reveal golden brown skin crusted with salt. But while the steam from the mushrooms melded with smoke from the logs, the morels refused to crisp, and half the asparagus slipped from the grill grates into the fire below. Still, the meal was close to perfect: smoky and tender and crunchy in all the right places.
We all went to bed full that night, but I felt satisfied in a bigger way. Despite years of advanced techniques and specialty ingredients, I discovered a much deeper and simpler understanding of food in the craft’s primitive past. All I needed was fire, friends, and a willingness to step outside of my comfort zone.
That said, a little extra know-how would’ve helped — I could have spared those poor charred asparagus spears, at least. So I asked Chef Ben Bebenroth for his tips for a successful open-fire dinner party. He should know. He hosts Spice’s Plated Landscape dinner series several times a year, bringing diners together for a night of foraging and feasting on a multicourse meal cooked caveman-style.
Timing is everything. “Basically, it all works in reverse,” Ben explains. “A fire is optimal about 45 minutes after you start it, so you have to work backward and do the math.” Start with the time you want to serve, then subtract the time it will take you to plate, cook, and let the fire burn down to coals.
But don’t forget to think beyond the flames. “We don’t overburden [the grill] when we’re doing primitive cooking,” Ben says. If you’re serving grilled proteins, throw in a cold salad or salsa. “Those things can be done in advance, maybe while the fire’s getting rolling.” Plus, they’ll keep things interesting with variations in texture, temperature, and flavor.
A firepit isn’t the place for microplanes and mandolines — so what should you bring? “A shovel, hands down,” says Ben, to rearrange coals as needed, and “a really great grill grate” that will support the weight of your food and any cookware, such as a cast iron skillet. Wear thick leather gloves to protect your hands from burns and splinters, and don’t forget the refreshments. “You definitely need a beer in one hand,” Ben laughs. Not only is it a reminder to relax and go with what nature gives you, “it’s also good for putting out flare-ups.”
Zip-top storage bags
Cast-iron Dutch oven
Fire tools such as leather gloves and a shovel
For the brine
3-4 lbs. bone-in, skin-on chicken quarters
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 small carrot, peeled, diced
1/2 medium onion, peeled, diced
1/4 scant cup diced celery
1 large sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns
For the chicken
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 bunch thyme
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 lemon, sliced
Canola or olive oil
Up to 72 hours before you plan to serve, make the brine: Bring salt, sugar and 2 cups water to boil and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat. Add remaining ingredients to brine, then refrigerate, uncovered, until cold.
Meanwhile, prep the garlic, thyme and lemon, storing in a zip-top bag or reusable container.
Place chicken quarters into a heavy-duty zip-top freezer bag. Add 3 quarts water to brining mixture, then pour over chicken. Zip closed, pressing out as much air as possible, then double-bag. Allow to brine at least 12 hours.
Build a fire, allowing the flames to die down into coals. Place a grill rack above the hottest part of the coal bed and preheat a cast iron Dutch oven until smoking.
Remove chicken from the brine and pat skin dry. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Pour a generous amount of oil into the bottom of the pan and quickly add the chicken, skin side-down (you may need to work in batches). When the skin has browned and will easily release from the pan, flip the chicken over.
Add the smashed garlic cloves to the bottom layer of the pan, sprinkle the thyme around the chicken, pour over the lemon juice and arrange the lemon slices on top. Cover.
Remove the Dutch oven from the grill grate and nestle into the coals. Cook until the chicken is cooked through and the juices no longer run pink (about 15 minutes). Serve hot.