home is where the hearth is


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Since today is the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer author who (along with my parents and grandparents) first kindled my homesteading spirit, I thought it would be an appropriate time to write about my recent explorations into hearth cookery.

One of the things I've always loved about summertime adventures is the opportunity to cook outside over a wood fire. There's nothing that beats the flavor (and enjoyment) of preparing food in this simple and rustic way. For years I've thought about bringing the same fun indoors for the winter and cooking in the fireplace. But since I only have a traditional 50's era residential fireplace and not some kind of spectacular colonial walk-in hearth (or even Alice Waters' fancy wood-fired oven), I thought it would be a cramped and awkward mess.

But as is sometimes the case when it comes to my passions, my enthusiasm overruled my concerns this winter and I decided to embark on a series of Friday night suppers cooked in the open-hearth. The first few weeks the kids wanted the campfire basics–hot dogs, S'mores and their favorite grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in my vintage Toas-Tite. But I had my sights on serving up real homesteader meals.

I got out my cast-iron dutch oven and made baked navy beans with molasses and salt pork right in the coals. I upgraded the kids from the Toas Tite to real pie irons and let them bake their own cornbread to have on the side. After that easy and hearty hearth meal we were all hooked.

Next I decided to invest in a cooking grate to expand our cooking possibilities. In keeping with our Laura Ingalls prarie inspiration, the next meal was pan fried trout breaded in corn meal and cooked in salt pork drippings (a nod to On the Banks of Plum Creek), fried potatoes and the kids made apple turnovers in their pie irons. The pie crusts on the first few turnovers were a bit charred (we're still working out the heat and timing for the pie irons) but the trout and potatoes were wonderfully delicious.

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Now I'm looking forward to expanding our repetoire with larger cuts of roasted meats and more baked goods. I also want to set up my firebrick from my makeshift pizza oven and see if I can get a good wood-fired pizza made in the fireplace. Can it be long until I start contemplating a full-fledged rotisserie?

But besides the culinary upsides of cooking around an open fire, I also think the act of gathering the family around the hearth to prepare a meal in a slow, deliberate and communal way has further-reaching emotional benefits. It not only brings the kids closer to the idea of their food and how it's cooked but it's warm and cozy and the kind of thing that memories are made of.

For anyone interested in getting into serious fireplace cooking, I highly recommend reading The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America by Suzanne Goldenson and Doris Simpson. It gives a great background on the history and implements of early American hearth cookery as well as recipes specifically adapted for cooking in this way. The coals await!  

UPDATE 12 February 2011

Last night I tried out the pizza idea. I placed one of my pizza stones on the grate and surrounded it on three sides by firebricks. Then I balanced another pizza stone on top. It created the perfect little pizza oven right in the fireplace. I tried to measure the temperature with an oven thermometer but couldn't get an exact reading–just that it was over way over the maximum 600 degrees. Yay! I was hoping for something in the range of 800 degrees and think I might have gotten close. We were able to cook a series of tasty winter broccoli raab and potato pizzas each in about five minutes time. They had a wonderfully crispy crust (as always, thanks to Peter Reinhart's fantastic dough recipe) and a smoky wood-fired taste. Quick, easy, tasty and fun! This is something I'll definitely be doing again soon.

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