Nature's kitchen

Wilderness cooks say they can whip up anything that can be cooked at home

Wilderness cooks say they can whip up anything that can be cooked at home

March 05, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

For dinner:

Barbecue ribs. Roast turkey. Chili. Stuffed tenderloin. Stuffed roasted chicken.

For dessert:

Pineapple upside down cake. Apple cobbler. An assortment of pies.

Must be one heck of a menu. It is, only these mouthwatering delicacies have been spotted at the Great Outdoors Cafe, where ambiance is created by the rustle of leaves in the wind and the crackle of wood on a fire.

Wilderness cooking has evolved in time as safety regulations have made it more difficult to build a fire for cooking. Propane stoves are more prevalent now than a decade ago, and kettle stoves - large drums bisected lengthwise - are in vogue. But there is still a place for building a fire, using its hot coals to heat meals simple and extravagant.


Equipped with the right equipment mixed with enough time and a dash of patience, outdoor chefs can whip up feasts fit for any dinner table.

"It is just like cooking at home. I think that's where some people have a misconception," says Scoutmaster Mike Medevich of Boy Scout Troop 19 in Waynesboro, Pa. "If I have a Dutch oven and some heavy pans, I can make anything you cook at home."

Medevich and Waynesboro resident Robert Avey, a cooking merit badge instructor, say the trick to successful wilderness cooking involves plenty of preparation and the right tools for the trade.

Enterprising cooks can create a makeshift oven with little more than a strong cardboard box, heavy-duty foil and a couple of simple racks. But by far, the outdoor chef's best friend is a cast iron Dutch oven, able to yield roasts and cakes in a single weekend.

"There's just so many things you can do with it," Avey says. "Because of the lid it has, it has a rim on the edge that allows you to put coals on top. So, you can cook from the top down, just like an oven in your house."

Unlike home cookin', using nature's kitchen poses problems Emeril is likely to avoid. For one, heat is not as concentrated, since warmth from hot coals disperses with the breeze. To combat this, Avey says to use foil as a shield against the elements.

Similarly, an open fire does not provide uniform heat like an oven does. This is why, Medevich says, coals are used rather than fanning flames as high as possible.

"Flames are just so unpredictable," he says. "One minute they're hot, the next they're cold. So, the food doesn't cook well and is unappetizing."

For best results, budget plenty of time to kick it up a notch before hungry campers dig in.

To prepare a breakfast of eggs and pancakes for 8 a.m., plan to start a fire close to 6 a.m. That way, there are enough coals hot enough to sustain the entire cooking process.

"If it's going to take you a half hour at home, it's going to take you 45 minutes in the woods," Avey says. "I've had a cake take two hours to do when it should have taken 45 minutes or an hour, and, at the end of that second hour, I was beginning to lose patience."

Keeping an even keel may be easier said than done. Avey, 39, and Medevich, 43, are camping veterans - each has been involved in scouting since childhood - and remember the lean early days of burned baked goods and underdone potatoes.

"When I just joined scouting as a boy, I had plenty of eggs that were stuck in a frying pan and pancakes that wouldn't flip," Medevich says. "One thing that scouting does is it lets you learn that trial and error thing. You just do it and do it and do it, and after awhile you get better."

As vice president for programs for the Mason-Dixon Boy Scout Council, Avey oversees five subcommittees ranging from advancement to training of adult leaders. An April adult leader training exercise will teach people how to maneuver in a wilderness cooking environment.

Then, in May, a large encampment at Fort Frederick will feature a dessert cooking contest. These activities are amongst his favorite things about scouting.

"Of course," Avey says, "eating is a lot of fun, too."

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