There’s something about cooking outside. More than the sum of its parts – the flickering fire, glowing faces gathered round, the darkness and the cold making everyone hungrier. This time of year takes me straight back to my childhood – potatoes baked in embers, cold fingers waving sparklers, pumpkins of all shapes and sizes on doorsteps, white marshmallows on sticks.
No longer the domain of Saturday afternoon barbecues and bonfire nights, cooking over wood and coals – purposely charring and blackening your food – has become quite a trend in restaurants, where I live in London and particularly in the New Nordic cooking happening in Scandinavia. I can see why – cooking celeriac steaks over charcoal brings another dimension to sometimes sidelined british vegetable, Crisp edged halloumi takes it out of bland category and there is little that tops a wood fired sourdough margherita.
Purposely charring and blackening your food has become quite a trend
Tom Herbert, my good friend and baker, has just written a book on the joy of cooking, and especially baking, outdoors. It’s a handbook for cooking outside, with everything from equipment lists to conversation topics to broach around a fire. Full of new ideas without over-complicating the subject, it’s a triumph, and one I will be using on camping trips for years to come. Tom has very kindly shared a recipe from it here – Snobrod, otherwise known as twist bread cooked in the most primitive of ways on a stick. As well this, there is my chilli, which can be cooked on a pot in the embers or equally on the hob if a fire is a bridge too far.
Cooking outside, for all its advantages, is something lots of us rarely make time to do, and though the experience isn’t portable, there are a few ways to get the charred flavour in your kitchen rather than the forest.
Five ways to get that smoky charred flavour inside:
Charring is, of course, possible on a griddle pan or even a good heavy-based frying pan. A favourite is scorching mushrooms in this way and then serving them with contrasting creamy polenta and some bitter radicchio.
An aubergine is an obvious pairing with a bit of smoke – babaganoush is a friendly dip of soft aubergine and smoky flavour, a halved aubergine is blackened directly over a gas flame, fore or under the grill until it’s collapsed, the skin is peeled off and mixed with olive oil, tahini, salt, pepper and chopped parsely.
I use the gas flame of my cooker for all sorts of other things too – especially warming rotis or flatbreads. The charred crunch adds an edge to a curry or salad. Keep a careful eye and remember not to use wooden tongs.
There’s been a lot of press this week about smoked water, a mysterious sounding ingredient made by welsh sea salt company Halen Mon. It is totally natural and adds smoke and depth with a couple of drops. Add it to bread dough, risotto, marinades or even cocktails to add notes of savouriness to a huge range of foods.
I always have a pot of smoked chillies and several varieties of smoked paprika by my stove to liven up an array of meals – from finishing off a homemade hummus to popping in a chilli for an added layer of warmth.
A recipe for the hob (OR FIRE): 30-minute sweet potato chilli
Usually the joy of chilli is that it has been blipping away on the hob building up flavour for hours, but this chilli is different. It’s a bit fresher and brighter, but it’s still packed with flavour from the chipotle and spices and is topped with a bright chilli and herb drizzle.
- 1 × 750ml jar of passata
- 1 × 400g tin of Puy lentils
- 1 × 400g tin of aduki beans
- 50g quinoa
- 1–2 tablespoons chipotle paste (depending on how hot you like things)
- 1 large sweet potato
- A bunch of spring onions (about 125g)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Coconut or olive oil
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 × 220g jar of roasted red peppers
- 1–2 deseeded green chillies
- A bunch of fresh coriander
- Afew sprigs of fresh oregano or thyme
- 1 lime
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Coconut yoghurt or good Greek yoghurt
- Get all your ingredients together and put a large saucepan and a frying pan on a medium heat or over the glowing embers of a fire.
- Empty the passata, lentils, beans and quinoa into the saucepan and add 400ml of cold water. Add the chipotle and cook on the highest heat for 10–15 minutes.
- Peel, quarter and finely slice the sweet potato, roughly slice the spring onions and peel the garlic. Put the spring onions and sweet potato into the frying pan with a little coconut or olive oil and fry for 5 minutes. Add the smoked paprika and fry for a further 3 minutes.
- Using a fine grater, grate the cloves of garlic into the tomato quinoa mixture with the cumin and coriander and stir in.
- Take a ladleful of chilli out of the saucepan and add it to the sweet potatoes in the frying pan. Swill the whole lot around to get the goodness from the bottom of the pan, then pour it all carefully into the chilli pan. Simmer together for another 10 minutes with a lid on. Drain the red peppers, roughly slice them and add them to the chilli pan.
- While the chilli is cooking, put the green chilli and coriander into a blender with the oregano or thyme, the juice of the lime and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add 4 tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt and blitz until smooth.
- Serve the chilli in deep bowls, topped with yoghurt and the chilli drizzle.
Recipe adapted from ‘A Modern Way to Cook’ by Anna Jones.
A recipe for the fire: Snobrød
(Also known as Twist bread, Stick bread, Campfire bread)
- 4 cups (520 g) wholemeal or white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
- Big pinch of sea salt
- 5g dried yeast
- 1 cup (240 ml) water, ideally warmed in a pan to 30–40ºC, plus extra for perfecting the dough
- Light your fire and while it’s burning down make the dough.
- First, mix all the ingredients together in your mixing bowl. Work the dough for 15 minutes until it’s smooth and elastic, only adding extra flour or water if you’re sure it’s needed. The dough should be soft but not too sticky. Cover the bowl of dough with a shower cap and leave it to rest and rise for 30 minutes, somewhere warm, like near your fire.
- Each person making bread needs to find a long straight stick and clean it up for baking. The thicker your stick, the bigger your hole so the more filling options you’ll have (although it will take slightly longer to bake).
- Once it’s had its half-hour rest, lightly dust your hands with flour, twist off a small handful of dough and roll the dough out between your hands until you have a stick-shaped sausage of dough. Coil it tightly around your stick, taking care not to tear it and leaving no gaps. Hold your stick over the died-down-to-hot embers, twizzling it occasionally until it’s baked and voilà! Snobrød!
- Once it's cooled for a few moments, tease your bread off of the stick, fill, dip and devour.
Recipe from 'Wild Baking' by Tom Herbert (Do Book Company)