Trail cooking for the beginner

Trail cooking. Just the sound of that short sentence conjures up visions of cast iron pots strung over a smoky campfire and an old two gallon coffee pot settled onto a bed of hot coals…  at least to me it does.

I once had a previous post on trail cooking on my now deleted Myspace account. Instead of drawing the folks I had intended it for, somehow it drew the back packers crowd. While I have nothing against back packers, it seemed they had ‘green’ issues with me regarding open fires and meat. Since I and my cooking style didn’t fit their mold of what trail cooking is, I received a number of rude and opinionated comments.  So, hopefully those reading this Heritage and trail cooking blog are more attuned to what I consider trail cooking.

First, unlike the back packing crowd, my idea of trail cooking is not cooking rehydrated pouches of pasta alfredo in micro sized aluminum pans over even smaller Swedish alcohol stoves. If yours is, then instead of acting high and mighty and scowling at you, I want to instead educate and teach you about the wonderful world of cooking full meals outdoors while on the move.

In this post, I’m going to show you some handy items for the beginner trail cook. In other post, I’ll go through other great outdoor cooking equipment, how to use them like a pro and give you cooking tips on stews, meats, veggies, biscuits breads and more.

By the time I’ve finished my different post on these subjects, you’ll have enough information to confidently step into the role as a real trail cook.

But first, let’s look at what trail cooking is and give you a beginners guide to some basic equipment.

   Trail cooking is a method of cooking ‘on the run’.

While some ranch cooks have permanent outdoor fire rings with iron pot hanger bars in place (as shown in picture above), we are going to talk about a short term set up. Trail cooking is similar to camp fire cooking except that when you trail cook, you set up your cooking process in a way that you make and store a bulk amount of ingredients for future use while on the move. I’ll explain.

If you are making cowboy beans each night, you would not start from scratch each time you made them. Instead, you would go ahead and prepare a bulk amount of soaked and boiled beans that could last 2-3 days.  Such things like vegetables and spices are not included in the bulk amount being cooked as they are added as each days meal are made.  After the bulk amount of beans are boiled up, the amount you need for future meals is then separated and stored for another days meals. The trick is to store them correctly to inhibit them from turning rancid on you. Boiled beans for instance can be drained fairly dry and stored in cloth sacks for a day or two more with no ill effect. By doing this, you no longer have to do daily overnight soaks and then boil them at each meal until they’re soft.

Sour dough biscuits and breads are another part of the meal that should be set up for multiple days meals. The sour dough starter is made in bulk and a certain amount is then drawn off and added to each batch of fresh dough.

The whole idea of trail cooking is that you can move your camp yet easily set up and quickly start cooking once stopped.

The Chuck Wagon was a portable kitchen that traveled ten to fifteen miles each day.

First things first.

 First the fires. I use two different fire set ups depending on the way I’m cooking and equipment I’m going to use. One is the teepee and the other is the log cabin or criss cross method.  Each fire starts with a center of very flammable material called tinder. This can be paper, or carbonized cloth.* around that material can be loosely placed cardboard, dried grass etc. Then covering that are loosely placed twigs from pencil to finger thickness. (Loosely placed is the prime word here.) From this point you can decide what type of fire you wish to cook on and how big you want it to be.

The first is the Teepee fire. This is a fire that concentrates the flame and heat to a single point located in the center of the fire. Placed on end with all its upper tips meeting in the center above and around the tinder fire, you again start with thinner branches or split wood. Each layer of wood becomes thicker until your pieces are 4-6 inches in diameter. Leave a small opening in the side that leads directly into the center of the tinder area. Using a twig with paper or dried grass wrapped around the end of it, light it and place it into the tinder. Add split wood or logs as needed. This is the quickest to start and hottest form of cook fire. An evening campfire is usually a teepee style.

The second is the criss cross or log cabin fire. Start again with the same tinder method as the teepee fire uses.  Similar to building a cabin with Lincoln logs, build a four square structure using pencil thin twigs,  making sure to lay each twig on the end of the twig next to it. When the height is just above that of your tinder fire place a row of “roof” twigs (pencil to finger thickness)  loosely across the top, like a roof. Place another loosely built wall of twigs and thin branches around the original cabin making sure you leave an entry way intact for lighting your tinder. Each wall of surrounding “Lincoln logs” should be thicker until they reach a 4-6 inch thickness. After lighting, this fire is meant to burn down into a hot burning coal bed. Add to the fire to increase the intensity of the hot coals by laying consecutive thin and thick pieces of firewood flat across the fire being sure not to add too many too quickly or you could smother your fire. As mentioned, by building this type of fire, a very thick, hot and long lasting bed of coals are made.

When you deem the fire is ready, just rake the coals somewhat level.  you can place your cooking equipment, and certain foods directly onto the coals. This type of fire has many uses. It provides a flatter surface for Dutch ovens, frying pans, coffee pots and other equipment that cannot be hung over the fire.

                                                                             

The basic grill.  There are again two types of grills I use. One is the above pictured stationary grill on legs and the second is a great little adjustable grill shown further down. I’ve even seen folks use old oven racks as grills as shown below.

The best way to use a flat grill without legs is to set it on top of two large opposing logs with the fire in between the two logs. This not only holds the grill level and in place but reflects the heat into the center of the fire. Rocks can also be used but never use rocks taken from the water, they can explode when water that has soaked into the rock turns into steam.

The adjustable grill. This is my favorite all purpose grill. It’s mounted on an iron rod hammered into the ground and held in place with an attached clamp. Being mounted on the rod allows the grill to be easily moved up and down and rotated away from over the fire. No more burning heat hitting your face when trying to remove your cooked food. Just rotate it 180 degrees away from the fire.

It will hold most frying pans, coffee pots or you can cook directly on top of it. Potatoes, corn on the cob and even hot dogs, burgers and steaks cook easily on it. It dismantles and can be stored in its flat box. This inexpensive trail cooking tool is a must in my book.

Finally, there are some optional pieces of equipment that are real handy if you are serving up food for a crowd but not necessary if you’re just a handful of hungry folks. I’ll go into further detail on these pieces of equipment in an upcoming Dutch Oven post. Below I’ve posted some pictures of these. They include a four legged Dutch oven cooking set, a coffee tilter and pot hanger. Other minor but handy stuff to have on hand are long handle tongs, a long handled basting brush, a iron lid lifter and gloves. I do not recommend using leather as heat transfers through leather quickly. Instead, I use Kevlar oven gloves.

With the increased interest in self sufficiency and return to heritage cooking, trail cooking is an important skill to learn. Many web sites have great recipes for this type of cooking and give great tips.  If anything,  a few tries will sharpen your outdoor cooking skills and give your ego a boost when you cook up a storm of great tasting meals for your friends.

* How to make Carbon cloth. Take a 4-6 inch flat can that has a screw on lid on it. Using a nail, punch a hole or two in the top of the lid. Place some pieces of old cloth (6″ X 6″) into the can and screw the lid back on. Place the can over a campfire. You will see smoke coming from the vent holes. When smoking stops, remove the can and let it completely cool down. Once cool, unscrew the lid and you will find pure carbon cloth. It is very flammable when struck by a match or spark and can be safely kept right in the can you baked it in.

(Some photos were blatantly stolen from Google images. What? You think that horrible picture of the hot dogs on the oven rack is me?)

Advertisements

COWBOY BEANS, Also known as, Whistle berries, Pecos strawberries and Fart-n-darts

courtesy of Google Images

In my latest travels out West, I had to make a stop at a small eatery in Cave Creek Arizona where they serve what I think is the worlds greatest bowl of beans. More a bean soup than anything else, the dish simply burst with the flavor of beans. Sitting there enjoying my big bowl of beans in their own gravy, I made a vow that when I got back home I’d  re create this recipe. The menu at the place simply said, “Cowboy Beans” so I was left on my own to discover their recipe.

Within a few days of returning home, I dragged out my heritage recipe collections to see if any I had came close to the recipe they served up there in Cave Creek.  Nope.

I discovered that all my recipes were of the variety that made thick, brown sugar and molasses style beans. Similar to the popular Boston Baked beans or store bought Bushe’s or Campbell’s Baked beans.  These, I am positive, were not the same style found whipped up by trail cooks from their Chuck wagons.

I had never thought much about what kind of beans those Cowboys really ate and that got me thinking. Exactly what kind of beans did they really eat while out on the trail?

They surely didn’t do the molasses style since that would have meant traveling with loads of brown sugar and jars of molasses. The sugar would have quickly hardened into a rock and the molasses , being rare out west, would have been worth its weight in gold.

Since many trail drives started out in or around Texas, it made sense then that the spices,  beans and cultural taste would be indigenous to the Mexican influence.

I scoured the Western cooking blogs and web sites and found to my amazement, most posted nothing but common syrup thick pork –n-bean recipes and even at that, they used canned rather than dried beans.

Now I have a slight sugar problem, not bad mind you but enough to make me alter my cooking habits a bit in order I don’t fall over dead before I complete my personal bucket list.

So I went about searching through every type of cook book from Western to Vegan for a healthier, non sugar recipe and still I could not find what I had in mind.

Then I found it. When I had been camping out in Texas, I ran across a State of Texas sponsored history attraction that was dedicated to the Texas Trail drives. There amidst the Charles Goodnight collection, was an old Chuck Wagon showing how it was set up. Alongside it in a glass and wooden case, was the reproduction of a few common recipes used back in the day. I photographed them closely and then immediately forgot about them.

Suddenly remembering this, I opened up my Kodak collection of photos and found what I had been searching for. Their recipe for ‘beans in gravy’ eaten on the trail.

Well, I immediately converted the recipe into today’s amounts and whatnot. I changed the sautéing of the veggies in butter and oil versus a “a good hand sized glob of suet” (it sounds worse than it is, suet was a homemade tasty unfiltered lard .

While the beans stayed the same, I had to guess on what a ‘ Mexican pepper’  was,  so I used a combination of one  Poblano and two Cubano peppers. There are many I could have used but these are common down here. I charred them up on an open fire like written but changed from canned to fresh and roasted, my diced up tomatoes. All in all, the new recipe was near as possible to that of the real Chuck Wagon one.

Let me say this. I was thrilled with my beans, they were absolutely delicious!

Sometimes heritage recipes aren’t as tasty, well formed or as good looking as those of today, but a heritage recipe whether good or bad does something a modern recipe can never do. It lets you literally touch the past by using your tongue.


 

 Ingredients

2 cups of dried (not canned) red beans

2 cups of dried (not canned) pinto beans. Some folks advise to pressure cook these guys before hand to get ’em soft

1 large yellow onion (Spanish or Sweet is fine) chopped up fine

3 Tbl chopped up garlic

3 green chili, Cubano, Poblano (your choice of Mexican ) peppers. Grill or roast them up for a minute then then chop them up

3 ripe tomatoes, grill them up for a minute then remove seeds and chop them up

1 Tbl vegetable oil for sauteing veggies (if using olive oil, use light to reduce the olive flavor)

1 Tbl of butter added to sauteing oil

7 quarts of water (for added flavor use 2 cups of vegetable stock and 5 quarts of water)

1 large ham bone with meat attached, pig foot or large slab of salt pork or suet. (Add extra pork fat if using ham bone for taste and

for added ham flavor, add 2 packets of Goya Ham Concentrate to the mix)

Spices

1 1/2 tsp coriander seed (toast them up first in a small skillet for bursting flavor, toast until you smell them)

1 whole unbroken bay leaf (remove after cooking)

OPTIONAL,  Add 2 dried hot red chili peppers (1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper can be used instead if you ain’t got chilli peppers)

1 tsp of black pepper during simmering

1 tsp of salt during simmering. (Salt to taste,  add more salt if desired when almost finished cooking)

Cooking instructions

Soak beans overnight in water to cover, changing water once; drain.

When beans are ready, saute onion, garlic, green chiles and tomatoes in butter and oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.

Add water / stock and ham bone then bring to a boil.

Add beans, toasted coriander seed, bay leaf and dried chilies.

Continue to boil for 30 minutes, then lower heat, cover and simmer for three to four hours.

After a few hours of simmering, remove the lid, leave it off, and season beans with salt again to taste.

Continue to cook until beans are soft but not mushy.

Remove ham bone and bay leaf before serving.

Makes about 16 servings

Fire roast the tomatoes before chopping them up

Chop up the tomatoes

Chop the onion up into small pieces

Saute veggies in butter and oil

Add Ham bone. I save my ham bones from previous hams by freezing them after the ham is eaten. Add fat to the ham bone as by itself, it will be too lean.

Add microwave heated ham to pot

Roast up the Coriander in a skillet

Fill pot with 7 quarts of water and start to boil. Add beans only after pot is boiling

Boil covered for 4 hrs then uncover and add salt

Don’t forget to remove ham bone, fat and bay leaf when cooking is finished.

Old west ditty.

“Beans, beans the musical fruit,

the more you eat the more you toot!

The more you toot, the better you feel,

So eat your beans at every meal!