Food & Drink

Not your ordinary campfire dinner

Patty Kueck stirs up a pot of beans and salt pork cooked over a campfire. Patty and her husband, Don, enjoy the challenge of cowboy cooking.
Patty Kueck stirs up a pot of beans and salt pork cooked over a campfire. Patty and her husband, Don, enjoy the challenge of cowboy cooking. The Wichita Eagle

Hot dogs never taste better, marshmallows never toast prettier than when they’re impaled on a stick and cooked over a campfire – especially when that campfire is surrounded by friends and laughter.

But once you’ve exhausted the go-to campfire dinners, then what?

There’s much more to campfire cooking than franks and s’mores. Using the glowing coals at the bottom of a campfire as an oven, campers can make breakfast, lunch and dinner using foil, a Dutch oven and a little culinary imagination.

Recently, I caught up with Patty and Don Kueck, who are experts in Dutch oven cooking – cooking in the heavy-duty, cast-iron pots that sit directly on a campfire. They inspired me to finally season and use my own Dutch oven. I also tried a few other simpler campfire cooking techniques.

The couple, who live just north of Hutchinson, became interested in Dutch ovens after studying up on the methods of chuck wagon cooks who fed the cowboys driving cattle north from Texas across the southern Plains in the late 1800s. The cooks would travel ahead of the cowboys, Patty said.

“The cook got up really early every morning and fixed breakfast, then headed out and got to the stopping point for dinner and started cooking again,” she said.

Years, ago, Don found an old farm wagon behind a shop in Kingman, which he turned into a replica of an cattle drive chuck wagon. Now, the couple often make appearances at events where they can demonstrate what they’ve learned about campfire cooking.

A few weeks ago, they were at the annual Prairie Rose Western Days, where they showed crowds how to make cowboy beans with salt pork along with angel biscuits and bread pudding – just like the chuck wagon cooks used to do.

The Kuecks have perfected their method. First, they burn hedgewood for an hour or more inside an old trough until the fire is reduced to glowing orange coals. They poke holes in a metal shovel, which they use to transfer the coals to a metal cooking stand nearby. The holes in the shovel allow unwanted ash to fall through and stay behind.

When the Dutch oven is filled with ingredients, the Kuecks put it directly onto the coals in the metal stand and and cover it. Hot coals also are shoveled onto the Dutch oven’s concave lid. Patty rotates the lid and the pot every 10 minutes or so, ensuring even cooking inside.

“We’ve learned that there’s a lot of your everyday favorite recipes that will work that way,” Patty said.

Dutch ovens are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at Wal-Mart or at local sporting goods stores. The Kuecks use Lodge brand, which run $25 and up.

But a Dutch oven isn’t required for creative campfire cooking.

I recently did some urban campfire cooking, using the fire pit in my backyard. I wanted to break in a Dutch oven received as a gift more than 10 years ago that had been sitting in the basement untouched. But I also wanted to see what I could do using a roll of heavy-duty foil.

First, I prepared a batch of Dutch oven potatoes. I’d read that thin-sliced potatoes can be layered with just about anything you like and come out nicely in a Dutch oven.

I sliced about 10 big russets, then chopped up seven pieces of raw bacon and crisped it up in the Dutch oven, placed directly on the hot coals. I spooned out the bacon, then layered the potatoes with onion, cheese and bacon right onto the leftover bacon fat. The lid went on the oven, more coals went on the lid, and 40 minutes later, I had tender, cheesy potatoes that were cooked through and nicely browned on the top.

I also decided to try foil packet cooking. Years ago, I’d read about the method of wrapping up burger patties with lots of veggies for a camp-side meal-in-one. These packets can be made using hot dogs, chicken, fish, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, squash – even breakfast foods.

For my meal-in-a-packet, I mixed up some 90 percent lean ground beef with bread crumbs, egg, a little cheese and some seasonings and formed it into four patties.

Next, I put the burger in the center of a double layer of heavy-duty foil and started experimenting. In one packet, I piled the burger with cheese, thin potato slices, baby carrots and an onion slice. In another, I used baby golden potatoes and no extra cheese. I topped each with half a slice of bacon so the fat could drop down. All were wrapped tightly and set directly onto the hot coals.

About 40 minutes later, the burgers were cooked, and a delicious crust had formed in the bottom of the foil. The potatoes were tender. The carrots were, too. Everything in the packet was layered with flavor from the bacon.

For dessert, I tested a simple suggestion I’d read about: spooning “just-add-milk” blueberry muffin mix into a hollowed out orange. Wrapped in heavy-duty foil and placed onto the coals, the muffin batter quickly baked inside the orange rind and, when spooned out, had a wonderful citrus zing that might have ruined me on regular blueberry muffins.

Next time, I’ll try campfire banana splits, made by peeling one side of a banana, stuffing it with chocolate chips and marshmallows, wrapping it in foil and letting the whole mess melt over the coals.

Dutch Oven Bread Pudding

Serves 4

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Five slices of white bread

12-oz. can evaporated milk

3/4 cup water

3/4 cup raisins

1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg

2-3 tablespoons butter

Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon with a whisk. Tear bread into small pieces and add to mixture. Add milk and water and mix well, then stir in the raisins. Let mixture sit for five to 10 minutes until the bread is soft. Pour it into a foil-lined Dutch oven. Sprinkle mixture with nutmeg and dot with butter. Place oven over prepared coals, then shovel coals on top of the pot and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, turning the pot a quarter turn clockwise and the lid a quarter turn counterclockwise every 10 minutes. Do not overcook. Pudding will be jiggly in the center. Serve warm.

Source: Patty Kueck

Dutch Oven Cheesy Potatoes

Serves six to eight

7 slices of bacon, chopped

10 Russet potatoes, sliced into thin coins

1 1/2 cups of shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1/2 of a large onion, diced

Salt

Pepper

Place Dutch oven over prepared coals. Put bacon in pot and cook until crispy. Remove bacon pieces. Pile 1/3 of the potato coins onto the fat, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Then top with 1/3 of the cheese, then 1/3 of the crumbled bacon, then 1/3 of the onion. Repeat the layers twice. Close the lid and cook 35 to 40 minutes or until potatoes are browned and tender, turning the pot a quarter turn clockwise and the lid a quarter turn counterclockwise every 10 minutes.

Source: Denise Neil

Campfire Burger Meal-in-One

Makes 4 servings

1 pound 90 percent lean ground beef

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1 egg, beaten

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Two Russet potatoes, sliced thin

Baby carrots

1/2 onion, sliced

2 slices of bacon, halved

Prepare four double layers of heavy-duty foil. In a bowl, mix beef, bread crumbs, cheese, egg, garlic powder, salt and pepper together with your hands. Form into four patties. Place each patty in the center of the foil. Top burger with four or five potato coins, spread evenly. Top potatoes with four or five baby carrots, placed side-by-side. Top carrots with two or three onion slices. Place half a strip of bacon on top of the onions. (Butter would work, too.) Wrap foil packets tightly and seal. Place packets directly onto hot coals and cook for 34 to 40 minutes. Carefully unwrap packets and serve.

Source: Denise Neil

Orange and Blueberry Campfire Muffins

Makes six oranges

Six medium oranges

1 7-ounce package just-add-milk blueberry muffin mix

1/2 cup milk

Cut top off of oranges and hollow them out, being careful not to break the skin. Reserve pulp and juice in a bowl. Prepare muffin mix by stirring in the milk. (Would also work well with lemon poppy seed or chocolate muffin mix.) Fill oranges with muffin mix about 1/2 to 2/3 full. Wrap in heavy-duty foil, leaving the top open. Place the oranges directly on the prepared coals. Be careful not to let ash fly into the open tops. In about 10-15 minutes, the muffin mix should be baked inside. Remove oranges from fire, allow to cool for five minutes, then remove carefully from foil and serve with a spoon for breakfast or dessert. Strain the reserved pulp and juice into a glass for some fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Source: Denise Neil

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