A word of caution when working around open flames. Be sure to have a fire extinguisher, water hose and shovel handy should the flames escape the pit. Carefully remove any hazards that may cause an individual to trip or fall in the pit area. Wear fire retardant clothing that will not combust if hit by an errant spark. Lastly use your head and think as there will always be unforeseen hazards and listing them all would be an impossible task.
“Tender, golden brown and swimming in juice . . . baked beans are a favorite food of most men who live in the woods, whether baked in a camp stove, in the ground nearby, or forked from a can. Beans are inexpensive and they stick to your ribs.” - “Nature I Loved” by Bill Geagan
Close to home this weekend attending to an extensive list of house chores, I was muddling over the above quote when I thought it might be fun to pull out Grandma's old baked bean recipe and see if I could possibly imitate her classic mix that had over the course of many decades brought our family together for so many occasions. In reflection, what I was really trying to create wasn't necessarily “baked beans” that I knew would never complete with Grandma's but rather the signature tastes and smells that I knew would trigger so many happy memories. Outside working through a plethora of yard work, I decided that rather than settling for the easy set and forget “crock potting” method I would instead bake my beans over the open flames of a campfire. Those uninitiated with the art of cooking anything outside need to understand that cooking in this manner is an art form. Using a difficult to regulate heating source (like the MSR Whisperlite . . . LOL!) is a skill that I have honed over the years. Some of these acquired skills, I would like to share with you in hopes that you pass this tradition on to your loved ones.
Maybe I am just a caveman, perhaps an individual misplaced in time, but for me there is primitive allure associated with cooking over open flames of a wood fueled fire that cannot be duplicated by a kitchen stove or gas grill. It stirs something deep in my soul to gather firewood, build a fire pit and organize a strategy for the food preparation. Cooking outside for me is a labor of love, this is not LOW stress cooking this is NO stress cooking, a time for relaxation and reflection.
Before we start cooking we need to discuss preparation. As the saying goes an ounce of preparation will save you pound of perspiration. Lets start with looking at sample baked bean recipes (Hey you didn't really think I was just going to hand you Grandma's!). “Beenies” are usually comprised of a couple key ingredients that are the same across most recipes. An Internet search, will yield you tons of choices but when finally deciding remember simple is best. Typically, quality baked beans rely on the combination of a few key ingredients; dried beans (typically Great Northern, Navy or even the small California pea beans or large Yellow Eyes), salt pork, onions, molasses, brown sugar, mustard, salt and plenty of water.
Check these sources for a interesting options that play to the original ingredients but have their own unique flavors:
Thursday evening using a few common gardening tools, I managed to dig a small but functional key hole shaped fire pit. Lesson one, large bonfire size pits are worthless for cooking. Lining the inside with a few concrete paving stones and the top ring with stones picked out of the nearby flower gardens I was on my way to creating a “heat sink” that would trap the heat from the initial fire and slowly radiate it into the bean pot over the course of 4-5 hour cooking time. For safety, I raked the debris away from the sides of the pit and covered the areas with pit dirt from to make sure escaping sparks wouldn't ignite the surrounding vegetation. In the photo you will note the “keyhole” shape of the cooking pit and how it differs from the standard “round” shape of most campfires. The keyhole shape allows regulation of applied the heat by moving hot coals into and out of the bowl area based on specific need.
When building your fire, use small pieces of hard wood like maple and oak as they will create a slow and long burn that will allow for more control over cooking temperature. Steer clear of softwoods like spruce and pine as they tend to burn fast and hot and will make temperature regulation difficult. Having a large pile of cut and properly seasoned (dried) wood ready the evening before will keep you from scrambling to find acceptable wood the next day. Though these tips will assist you greatly, it is not a perfect system and there are a multitude of variables. A good cook will carefully monitor the heat and frequently check the water level to insure no burning occurs. If you do happen to burn your beans you may be able to salvage you feast by quickly pouring out the beans and leaving the burnt remnants on the bottom. If you catch it fast enough you may keep the burned smell from permeating through the rest of the meal and you may just be able to save your supper.
Friday night I soaked the beans in water to reconstitute them and assembled all of the other ingredients. This allowed me to only have to concentrate on getting the fire going Saturday morning and preparing the coals. This I accomplished by starting a large blaze and over the course of about 1 hour (about the time it took to mow the lawn) letting it burn down to brilliant red glowing embers. I next assembled my tools. As with most pursuits, having the proper tools is essential. Cooking over open flames is certainly no exception. Cast iron cooking pots like a large dutch oven make this an easier task as they are specially built to take the abuse of the wild outdoors and if properly cared for with regular “seasoning” will last a lifetime. Heavy grade leather work gloves, long handled metal spoon and a specially designed lid lifter will go a long way in insuring that you do not get burned during the cooking process. When cooking outside remember that practice makes perfect and it is very likely that in your initial attempt(s) you are going to make mistakes. Do not attempt to use your newly acquired outdoor skills cooking for a dinner party or large group of relatives. You are learning a new skill and this degree of cooking mastery requires a stress free environment. In this fast paced world, many of you may find this mindset difficult to comprehend but in the end I hope that many of you embrace this mantra.
With everything now ready to go, the dutch oven was placed in the cooking area and monitored over the course of the next 5 hours. It was necessary to add approximately 32 oz of additional water to the cook pot as it simmered and stirring the contents about 2-3 times per hour seemed sufficient to keep things evenly heated. In the end, my family and I were treated to that delectable nirvana of properly cooked baked beans neither to hard or to soft but rather a good match for your taste buds and the perfect accompaniment for a nicely chilled IPA.
As I sat on the deck Saturday evening, I reflected on the last several days. I thought about the quality of the time I spent with my two year old son who had worked with me building the fire pit, helping to get the wood ready and mixing the ingredients. I began thinking of how many meals I had eaten over the years hurriedly prepared and with no thought of anything of substance. It made me realize that life is sometimes about slowing down and taking a day one step at a time, about not how much you can accomplish but about how much you can enjoy. In the end activities accomplished in the company of family and friends are really the key to happiness and in doing so you create lasting memories that will echo an eternity.