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Ember Bed Cooking
by George Hedgepeth
Cooking with no utensils at all is an atavistic art that few modern Americans, even those who spend much time in the woods, practice. It is very simple on the surface; one just throws food into a fire and then waits a bit. Of course it is a bit more refined than that, and it can produce fantastic results with no utensils and no clean up.
The first thing needed is a bed of coals. Hardwoods such as Ash, Birch, Hickory, Oak, Maple, Hornbeam or Dogwood are good choices. In general, light weight woods, such as Willow or Aspen produce fast ignition, lots of light, a short burn time, and no coals. Wood of greater density is more difficult to start burning, but burns longer, produces more heat, and leaves the hot coals needed for this method of cooking. Pick the right fuel for the fire you need!
Once a quantity of coals has been created, it is time to make a meal. There are a few classic "recipes" for cooking right on or in the coals. There are subtle differences in techniques, but all are simple and make good food.
Ash Cakes are probably our most ancient form of bread. To make these, meal or flour of some sort (I often use commercial pancake mix) is made into dough and formed into patties from 1/4 to 1/2" thick, usually about the size of the preparer's palm. They are placed right on a flat bed of coals and ashes. A stick is used to move them about when needed, and to flip them when the first side is done. When both sides are brown, the middle will be done. Push the patties out of the coals, blow off any clinging ash or embers, and enjoy! Hot, fresh bread is a wonderful thing, and is even better with fresh berries in the mix!
Large Roots, like sweet potatoes, onions, or turnips, are not placed ON the coals. Instead, they are buried IN them. For food like potatoes that can build up steam, remember to pierce the skin with a thorn or sharp twig or they may pop. The biggest problem with this method is timing- it is easy to have undercooked food or a charred husk if the cook is not vigilant. This is a valid technique once the tempo is understood. Pre-soaking the vegetables helps prevent burning.
Years ago on a bear hunt in Alaska, a friend and I ate a five-pound bag of yellow cooking onions in eight days. We baked them in the coals, peeling off the charred outer husks to get at the sweet, perfect core. What a simple pleasure!
Fish Filets- Place a filet from a large fish on the coals, skin side down. It is not necessary, or even desirable, to skin of scale the filet. It he filet is not too thick, say 3/4" or so, it will cook from the skin side up and not need to be flipped. If done correctly, a perfect, white, flakey slab of fish results. It can be seasoned or left plain with the smoky, understated touch of fire the only ornamentation. This is fast as well; a filet is usually done in less than 15 minutes. Eat the fish off of the scorched skin; then throw the remains in the fire!
Steak- Blow as much ash off of a hot bed of coals as possible. Then, place a steak directly on the hot embers. When the meat is flipped, make sure to put it on fresh coals that are still hot. When the meat is removed, a few spent embers may stick to it. These are easily brushed off, and in general add no flavor. Remember the heat is pretty intense- any foreign matter is sterile! Hot and fast with charred edges and a pink center… this can be a carnivore's dream.
Eggs- Eggs can be prepared simply without a pot or pan and with no waste. Peck a small hole in the small end of the egg- this hole need be no larger than the diameter of a matchstick. Make sure the membrane is pierced. This will keep the hot egg from exploding.
Bury most of the egg in the coals and ashes, pierced end up and exposed. As it cooks, a small bit of egg white will exude from the pressure relief hole. If the egg had a white shell, it will turn brown. When the eggs are removed from the embers, they are treated as if they had been boiled. Peel them and enjoy! The remains of the fire will break down the shells.
Let us imagine putting this all together... Wild leeks are buried in the coals along with ground nuts. A round steak cut from the hind quarter of a deer is laid next to meal cakes full of pieces of hickory nuts and persimmons. Next to this is a split whitefish covered with tart wood sorrel. The perimeter of the fire is lined with duck eggs slowly sputtering their way to completion... being a caveman doesn't sound that bad after all!
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Send an email to georgehedgepeth(at)hotmail(dot)com
Briar Patch Outdoors
219 Holmes Street
Durand MI 48429
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