Usually, plenty of Australians would be starting to make plans for summer camping trips about now. Others would already be on them, having escaped the southern states for long soirees north where winter is little more than a horror story told to scare kids at night.
A significant proportion of those people, though – and maybe you, reading this – are stuck at home dreaming of the warmth and crying into their beer while watching Netflix, thanks to ongoing lockdowns and border closures.
If that’s you, or if you’re just waiting to build up enough annual leave to head off, I reckon you should just bring the best bits of camping to your backyard and cook your meals over an open fire. Cooking over a proper, old-fashioned wood fire is simple, satisfying and not just for marshmallows and sausages. It’s the perfect way to escape the feeling of lockdown and break free from the monotony of it all. Plus, your food will be delicious.
It might come as a surprise to some that fires in your backyard aren’t automatically allowed, especially in the capital cities around Australia. It’s a good idea to check the local rules (usually hidden on your council’s website) before lighting a fire in the backyard, but in general, if it’s for cooking, it uses clean fuel like dry timber or charcoal and doesn’t make much smoke, there’s not a problem.
In some places, such as Brisbane, you can’t have a fire on the ground or in a brazier – it has to be for cooking in a dedicated “barbeque”, and in others, like some parts of the Northern Territory, you need to clear the area for 4 metres around the fire. And just in case you’re wondering, roasting marshmallows doesn’t count as cooking. It’s got to be a meal.
There are some great products on the market dedicated to campfire cooking, and they’re not just great in backyards. More and more, campgrounds that allow fires ask people to keep them off the ground to reduce their impact, so a travel-ready fire pit is almost essential. Anything that folds up and stows in a good-quality canvas bag is ideal.
When it comes to lighting the fire in your backyard, without then risking burning your house down, following a few common-sense practices is all it takes to stay safe. Keep the fire 4 or 5 meters from anything you’d regret burning down, and keep some water or the hose handy to put it out when you’re done.
You’ve got to start with a good bed of fast, hot-burning kindling. Fires smoke when they’re not hot enough, so if you can get a good, hot flame before adding on the bigger timber, you’ll have a better result. And collecting kindling is a great job to get the kids excited about the night’s adventure.
Once the fire is really going, you can start to add the larger logs on. I love using Australian hardwoods from near my home in Perth, but most eucalypts burn really well once it’s been dried (I generally avoid pine, though). Lump charcoal is another excellent option as it maintains steady heat for a really long time, and you can get it from the hardware store.
Unlike your oven at home, though, there’s no temperature dial on a backyard campfire, so I’ve spent a lot of time working on a hand-guestimation system to approximate how hot a fire is (but I also suggest using an infrared thermometer, if you have one). I do most of my cooking over medium/high heat and have found that if I can hold my hand about 10cm above the heat for around three seconds, it’s almost spot on. For slow cooking over medium heat, I want to be able to hold my hand over the heat for about 5 seconds before it feels too hot.
These three recipes below are from my new cookbook, Fire to Fork. They’re perfect for long, lazy evenings around a campfire because they take only a few minutes to prepare but sit cooking slowly for hours while you sit around with some cold drinks waiting for it to finish. It’s dinner and a show when you can’t go out for either.
I make no secret of the fact that I have never enjoyed dense damper typical of so many campfire meals. I have tried for years to make a good one, I’ve even made a cheeseburger and a hot-dog damper (those are pretty good), but whenever I want a camp bread, this is my first port of call.
Serves Four to six
Prep time 15 minutes, plus at least an hour or two for the dough to rise
Cooking time 5 minutes
3½ cups (550g) baker’s flour
1 sachet (7g or 2 tsp) dry yeast
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tsp honey
Rolling pin (a wine bottle works)
Grill plate, frypan or wok
Place flour, yeast, baking powder and salt in a bowl and mix it well. Dissolve the honey in some hot water, add cold water to make 380ml, and add the olive oil.
Mix the wet and dry ingredients in the bowl to form a sticky dough. Knead it in the bowl or on a clean, smooth, unfloured surface until the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticks to anything. In the bush you’ll have to earn your supper and do it by hand – there are no dough mixers here. Have a beer.
Plonk it back into a lightly oiled bowl and leave it to rise until it doubles in size. In a warm environment, this could be one to two hours. If you’re prepared, do it the day before and put it in the fridge to rise slowly overnight.
After it has risen, roll the dough out until it’s about 3 or 4mm thick and about 20-30cm in diameter, like a big, uneven pizza base. Alternatively, divide it up into smaller portions and roll it to the same thickness.
Throw it on a hot barbecue plate, frypan or wok, or any other hot surface you have (even straight on the coals), adding a bit of olive oil or butter to prevent it from burning. Flip it once you see the dough getting bubbles and cook it until both sides are golden brown. It should only take a few minutes.
Serve it piping hot, with lashings of butter and golden syrup, like you would damper. Or enjoy it as a wrap, with dips, or even use it as a great pizza base.
Camp oven bush ribs
Want to be able to say you spent four hours slaving over dinner and get all the praise, while actually sitting back with a beer around the fire? Well, this is the recipe for you.
Don’t be intimidated by the cook time, this recipe takes about 15 minutes to prepare, then all you need to do is check the fire every hour or so to make sure it’s still going. Just don’t tell your mates – according to them, you went above and beyond with this meal and the least they could do is bring you drinks while you do all the hard work, then wash up afterwards.
Prep 15 minutes
Cook 3-4 hours
2.5kg beef ribs
1½ tbsp soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 brown onion
½ cup barbecue sauce
1 tin (400g) diced tomato
250ml beef stock
¼ cup American or Dijon mustard
1 warm beer (or 350ml of water)
350ml of water (700ml of liquid, total)
3 tbsp brown sugar
Chilli, to taste (optional)
2 cups white rice
Peel off the membrane from the back of the ribs. If you don’t, it’ll turn into a plasticky film that you won’t be able to chew through and will prevent the flavours fully absorbing into the meat. It’s easy – just slice away at a corner until you can get a good grip with a bit of paper towel, then simply pull the whole membrane off. It should stay in once piece.
The membrane gone, generously salt and pepper the ribs and put them directly on a very hot and smoky grill or coals for five to seven minutes so they have some spots of char in some places.
Meanwhile, combine all the other ingredients (excluding the rice) in a camp oven, give it a rough stir and throw in the charred ribs. Put the lid on your camp oven and set it on a low heat with approximately 80% of the heat below and 20% above. If you’re using a gas cooker, it’ll still work with all the heat underneath. Let it simmer like this for three to four hours, or until the ribs are very tender and falling off the bone. Check it every hour or so, otherwise no one will believe you’re actually working hard.
When it’s done, rinse the rice and combine it with three cups of water in a pot with a lid on. Boil until the rice is cooked and water has been absorbed (about 12 minutes).
Serve the ribs on a bed of rice and soak up the praise for your hard work.
Puff pastry apple pie
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth – a few pieces of chocolate has never really done it for me. So, when I make a dessert, I like to put some time into it and make it worth eating. Every time I make this, I always over-cater – it’s one of those desserts people can’t get enough of.
Prep 7 minutes
Cook 30 minutes
3 Granny Smith apples, diced
¼ cup brown sugar
Juice of ⅓ of a lemon
1 tsp cooking salt
1 tsp cinnamon
25ml rum (spiced rum works best)
2 sheets puff pastry
Ice-cream, cream or custard, to serve
If you don’t have a freezer to carry the puff pastry, just put as many sheets as you need in the fridge and they should be fine for a few days. Or, use bread.
Add all of the ingredients, except the puff pastry and ice-cream, to a pot. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer on medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until you can put a fork through the apples easily. Don’t overdo it on the rum – there will be too much liquid, and you’re after hints of molasses, not a big hit of rum flavour.
Pre-heat your jaffle iron and butter it on both sides. Close it up and spin it around to let the butter coat the whole surface. Hot butter will spill out everywhere, so do it over the fire.
If you have a double jaffle iron, one sheet of puff pastry should fit perfectly over the four sections. If not, cut it into the right size, then lay one piece into each section (ensure you let the sheets defrost for a bit, so they aren’t brittle and frozen).
Pour the apple mixture evenly into each sheet and place another sheet on top, pinching the edges with your fingers to seal it.
Close the jaffle iron and place it on medium/high heat for about 10 minutes on each side, flipping every five minutes. After about seven minutes on each side, open the jaffle iron slightly and start checking to see if the pastry is browning. Be careful only to open it a bit and not rip the uncooked pie. Once the puff pastry is cooked, it shouldn’t stick to the buttered jaffle iron.
Once it is browned and crispy, let it cool for at least five minutes to avoid eating apple-flavoured lava. Serve with ice-cream, custard or cream.