Cooking with Fire
by Kathryn M. D'Imperio
There’s just something incredibly satisfying about roasting food and treats over an open flame. If you are fortunate to have a fire pit outside your home (or if you are thinking of putting one in), the possibilities for fun are nearly as endless as the food and drink recipes you can concoct for your family and friends to enjoy. Whether enjoying a hot, chocolaty nightcap amid a snowy backdrop in the winter or a few ice cold beers or an Arnold Palmer in the summertime, a fire pit is the perfect outdoor home accent to enjoy all year long.
Who better to ask for some delectable recipes and delightful drinks to enjoy than one of the Lehigh Valley’s own chefs? Chef Jason Hook, owner of H2O Kitchen (H2OK as in Hook), provides lavish private dining experiences in the Lehigh Valley, Berks, and Lancaster areas in the home or at business locations. Here are some of his favorite ideas on how to best enjoy and entertain around your own home fire pit.
FIRESIDE COOKING FOR ALL SEASONS
“Here in PA, we have all four seasons, and nothing to me screams Pennsylvania more than outdoor fire pits and cooking together as a communal event and enjoying our amazing landscape and product grown right here by our farmers that give us wonderful food to work with,” Chef Hook says.
When using your fire pit for cooking through the whole stretch of the calendar, Chef Hook recommends choosing special dishes that complement the seasons. It’s always fun to enjoy your favorites, but it can be just as rewarding, if not more so, to try new things and to roast what’s in season.
“Obviously roasting butternut squash halved/cleaned and wrapped in foil with aromatics in the embers of the pit leans toward fall and the cool, brisk autumn air,” he says. “In the spring, a leg of baby spring lamb or a suckling pig on a rotisserie suits that season well, just as our all-American 4th of July beer can chicken just doesn’t feel right in January… although just as tasty.”
Still, some dishes are perfectly suited to enjoy in any season. Chef Hook recommends a classic roasted whole chicken on the spit for fire pit cooking any time of year. First brine the bird overnight in a simple solution of water, salt, fresh thyme, garlic, peppercorns, star anise and coriander. The next day, rinse well and air dry for at least 3-4 hours in the refrigerator (uncovered) to allow the skin to tighten up, helping to prevent bubbling and blistering over the fire (the moisture causes this). Stuff the inside cavity with fresh crushed garlic cloves and tons of fresh herbs from the garden. Season with cracked fresh pepper and if desired in place of salt, use a soy-butter emulsion. This solution replaces the sodium aspect and allows you to continually brush the emulsion around the whole bird during intervals of the cooking process, adding flavor and preventing the bird from becoming too dry.
“It’s important to get your fire pit going early because you don’t want the flames to be high at all,” Chef Hook says. “You want the flames to start to die down so you can lower your rotisserie closer to the heat source and slowly roast the whole bird while rotating slowly during stages of the cooking process. A 5 pound bird will take anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour and a half depending on how hot. So this is more of a technique than a recipe.”
Fresh shellfish over the fire, especially mussels, can be a relatively easy and truly delicious dish to enjoy with the family or a group. Prepare a shallow heavy-bottomed pan by getting it hot over the fire and sweat out some onion, garlic, fennel, fresh thyme and Italian parsley, with a little fresh lemon. Add the rinsed shellfish to the pan, hitting them with a dry white wine and a generous amount of butter. Cover the pan immediately and let them sit on the embers to steam, about 7-10 minutes. Warm some dinner rolls on a foil sheet directly on the ashes next to the fire and serve immediately when done.
Preparing sides over the fire can be just as much fun as the entrees. Chef Hook recommends roasting sweet potatoes in a hot pan over the fire in the style of ‘potato fondant’ or “potatoes cooked in stock, covered and reduced to a sticky/slightly caramelized goodness.”
“The open fire adds that depth of smoke to the potatoes and makes them more savory than on the sweet side,” he says. “It’s important to cut uniform pieces of potato so they cook evenly and to get a good sear on them in a little fat. I prefer bacon fat as this adds another layer of smoke. The tastier the stock, the tastier the outcome of this dish. It is all about building levels of flavor, which is important when cooking over the fire because you want to build on that natural smokiness from the wood and embers that contribute that natural outdoors smoke.”
DRINKS AROUND THE FIRE
Summer immediately comes to mind when thinking about drinks to enjoy outside around the fire, but every season brings its own flavors to the table, and every fire pit dish can benefit from something cool and refreshing to sip. Enjoy your favorites or try these refreshing options the next time you enjoy some fireside cooking and conversation.
“Lemonade is as American as hot dogs and apple pie, and lends itself to countless interpretations,” says Chef Hook, recommending a Blueberry Lemonade Fizz for the kids, complete with fresh blueberries, and Basil-Gin Lemonade on the rocks for the adults.
As the fall season moves in, a hot apple cider becomes the perfect drink to enjoy outdoors. Chef Hook suggests the adults spike theirs with a little spiced Bacardi while tossing in a few apple slices for the kids to make it more fun and add some nutrition. (Bonus, your kids can think of it as “bobbing for apples” for more fall fun.)
“During the winter, try a new twist on hot chocolate,” Chef Hook says. “For adults, add a splash of Godiva liqueur and a little fresh red chili, then top it off with some fresh whipped cream along with a sprinkling of sea salt.”
From square or bowl-shaped fire pits to rustic fire circles surrounded by rocks from your own yard to flat-out bonfires, fireside fun doesn’t have to fade when the seasons change. Bring these expert chef’s tips alive this year or fire up your own ideas for fun, memorable and delicious times with the ones you love.
Sweet Potato Fondant
- 3 large whole sweet potatoes
- 2 T grapeseed oil (or another high heat resistant oil like canola)
- 5 T unsalted butter
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 sprigs fresh sage
- 6 cloves crushed garlic (skin on)
- 3/4 cup chicken stock, or more as needed
- Make sure the fire pit is at a good heat.
- Cut off ends of sweet potatoes, stand potatoes on end, and peel potatoes from top to bottom with a sharp knife to make each potato into a uniform cylinder. Cut each cylinder in half crosswise to make 6 potato cylinders about 2 inches long.
- Place potatoes into a bowl of cold water for about 5 minutes to remove starch from outsides; pat dry with paper towels.
- Place a heavy oven-proof skillet (such as a castiron skillet) over the logs. Pour in grapeseed oil; heat oil until it shimmers slightly.
- Place potato cylinders with best-looking ends into the hot oil, and pan-fry potatoes until well-browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper.
- Flip the potatoes onto the opposite ends. As they cook, use a paper towel held with tongs to carefully blot out the oil from the skillet. Add butter, thyme, sage and garlic to the skillet.
- Cook until butter foams and foam turns from white to a pale tan color. Season with more salt and pepper. Pour chicken stock into skillet. Baste with the foamed butter, letting the butter pour over the garlic and herbs on top of the browned sweet potatoes.
- Cover the skillet and transfer to an area of the fire pit that isn’t too hot, such as on the embers close enough to the fire where the heat is around 450 °F, and cook until potatoes are tender and creamy inside, about 25 minutes. If potatoes aren’t tender, add 1/4 cup more stock and let cook 10 more minutes.
- Place potatoes on a serving platter and spoon the sticky butter remaining in skillet over potatoes. Discard aromatics. Let cool about 5 minutes before serving.