Updated: Mar 4
Much of Montana is untamed, wild and natural. Our cuisine may often be described that way as well. Glacier National Park is our backyard bordered with world-class rivers and literally millions of acres of public lands- camping, and thus cooking outdoors, is also an essential part of our Montana life. There is nothing as delicious as a meal cooked over a fire; it provides the ultimate satisfaction after a day spent outdoors hiking or horseback riding in the mountains. Whether you are in the back country or the back pasture- sizzling meat, a steaming chili, or a bubbly, hot dessert will do the trick to warm you from the inside out.
Cooking outdoors started out rather primitive for me. As teenagers my siblings and I loved to backpack to an alpine lake in the mountains behind our farm. We would catch trout with our hands from the outlet stream and roast the filleted fish over a small fire, seasoning them with a pinch of salt and pepper from our packs. Simple. Wild. Natural. These days, our camping tends to be more luxurious – even if we ride 80 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on horseback! Thanks to the fire and my friend Sue's knack for organizing panyards, we dine on steak and potatoes, tacos, and stir fry. We often cook outdoors even when we aren’t sleeping there. My husband is head fire chief when we are cooking outside. While the kids skate on the pond, swim in the reservoir or fish with their uncle, I’ll put together an enchilada or lasagna or a crisp in the dutch oven. Then, Casey goes to work carefully distributing the coals and tending the fire until we are ready to devour an unpretentious but sublime meal.
Casey and I make a great team. I design. He builds. I plant. He tills. I prep. He grills. I think you get the picture. I love how as we work side by side our strengths compliment each other; we love to make each other shine. Nowhere is more tangibly evident than when we prepare a meal together. Folks often ask who does the cooking; the answer, both. We also really, really love to escape to the mountains together for a break from the homestead and to unplug from work. When hoping on a horse and riding into the back country wilderness or pulling the camper trailer into the heart of the Flathead National Forest for the weekend just doesn't play out, we do the next best thing and enjoy an evening around the backyard fire pit. Our view suffices.
When it comes to cooking in the fire pit, I tend to put together the meal, and Casey does the work of cooking or baking it. Nothing seems to say Montana woodsman quite like a cast iron pot cooking on a tripod over an open flame. Cowboy hat or baseball cap - Montana men have to know how to prepare food outside. Now, if we are cooking a stew or chili or a hot beverage, then the flaming campfire works. But, when it comes to baking in the dutch oven - enchiladas, lasagna, cobbler or crisp - we've discovered briquettes are the only way to go. Of course, we are also big fans of the compact, propane cooking systems available for use in the woods particularly when there are fire restrictions.
But if you are cooking in the fire pit, here's what my Casey recommends: Casey likes to find three good sized flat rocks from around our camp site. These stones will help hold the dutch oven up out of the ashes and allow for a convection-type baking instead of so much heat in the bottom of the oven. Once you've found your stones place them in your fire pit in a position where the legs of the dutch oven will be able to easily rest on them once you are baking. Next, pour out 30-40 charcoal briquettes. Douse them well in lighter fluid and light them. You want them hot (once the edges are white you know you are ready to start baking). With a gloved hand and long tongs, arrange 12-15 hot briquettes on the lid of your filled dutch-oven. Use the tongs to make a circle between your three rocks in the fire pit and then place your dutch-oven with its feet resting on the larger rocks. This method seems to work to heat the dutch oven to about 350 F. If you need it hotter, you'll need to use more briquettes or adjust your cooking time. Usually we have a hot meal or dessert in about an hour.
p.s. Casey has found the best tool for lifting the lid to check his oven is a pair of fencing pliers. I also really like Lodge brand seasoning spray and the parchment liners they make to fit inside the dutch oven.