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Campfire Cooking

Martha Stewart Living, June 2011

Rekindle your love of campfire cooking with recipes that are surprisingly grown-up but as fun as you remember.

However comfortable you are in your own kitchen, with its humming appliances and specialized gadgets, you may discover, as many do each summer, the pleasures of campfire cooking, where fresh ingredients meet heat in a smoky encounter stripped to the bare essentials.

The suppers and breakfasts (and occasional lunches) that come out of these experiences are typically the most memorable of the year, and not just because they take place in the great outdoors. Being away from the fridge and oven, or even a tricked-out backyard grill, seems to spur cooks to greater achievements and ever-more-clever ways of feeding diners gathered around the fire -- especially when the menu isn't confined to stock fare of the sleepaway-camp variety (cast your mind back to hot dog roasts and burnt buns).

The recipes here range from a sun-up breakfast through moonlit desserts -- an entire day's worth of tasty dishes that can be cooked over a wood flame and glowing embers. Meals prepared on a campfire are meant to be simple, but they can still aspire to magnificence, as revealed in telling details: a trio of oyster, shiitake, and cremini mushrooms in a foil-wrapped side dish, for example, or the lemon wedges browned alongside a pan-grilled whole chicken.

Many of these recipes rely on a sturdy cast-iron skillet (thanks to its heft, the pan evens out the heat of the fire). Other important provisions for the campfire cook include aluminum foil (molded into packets, the sheets act as pots); a grill grate to go over the fire, which provides a level surface; a good knife; lightweight, enamel bowls and plates; and a board for on-the-spot cutting and chopping (a grilling plank works beautifully).

A few extra ingredients and some playful flavor blends make up for any limitations thereafter. The classic breakfast of eggs and potatoes, cooked in bacon drippings, is stepped up here with crumbled bacon, scallion, and black pepper. Colorful and incendiary chiles, singed on the campfire, accompany a no-fuss mix of different types of sausages, and whole butterflied fish are tied up with a stuffing of herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary, or whatever is close at hand) and browned in olive oil with cherry tomatoes.

The tasty combinations cooked in humble foil "hobo packs" -- dill, garlic, and mushrooms; beer and potatoes; carrots and butter -- will impress family and guests, as will the deep-purple color of the skillet grunt, which comes from the juicy berries that have seeped into that dumpling dough.

With a little strategic menu-planning (a good idea whether your campfire is in the woods or your backyard), a few ingredients can even jump from meal to meal. Baby potatoes appear in a breakfast hash and as a dinner side dish. Tomatoes work their way into a salad, a relish, and the skillet for fried trout. And the extra effort applied to a homemade dough pays off handsomely in the form of skillet-baked breads served whole for sandwiches or cubed for panzanella salad and chocolate fondue.

Fire, water, air, iron -- these, and a little elbow grease, are the essential elements for a summer cookout filled with great flavors.