I am not a camper, happy or otherwise. The only time I sleep outdoors is in my backyard hammock on lazy summer afternoons. Therefore, I’ve never really given myself the opportunity to become a good open fire cook.

However, ever since my chimney sweep gave me the all-clear last fall, I’ve wanted to experiment with the wood-fired flames in one of the eight working fireplaces in my house. Given the house was built in 1806 and cast-iron, wood-burning stoves didn’t become commonplace in homes until the beginning of the 20th century, I am surely not the first cook to double down on the fires lit to take the chill off this drafty old place to also make dinner. If you’re spending the fuel (in our case wood from maple trees felled in our yard due to electric company power line requirements) and releasing the environmental impact into the air, it’s best to make as much of that energy expenditure as possible.

I’d be irresponsible at this point in this column if I didn’t remind folks that no cooking should happen in a natural gas or propane-fueled fireplace. Grease or other food particles could easily fall onto the logs causing them to not function properly at best, or create a fire hazard at worst.

To support my mid-winter, wood-fired cooking adventures, I have the modern advantage of custom Supaflu liners poured into my old chimneys for safety and airflow. Plus, we had the chimney exteriors reconstructed last summer. I know enough about the history of our Dunning-Hawthorne House (named for Aaron, its architect and Nathaniel, its most famous boarder) to attempt cooking in only the deep-set fireplaces on the first floor. The ones in the upstairs bedrooms are shallower because they are meant to house hot coals ferried from dying downstairs fires when it’s time for bed.

“Food cooked in a fireplace tastes marvelous, better than food cooked in most conventional ways today – the charcoal (grill) included,” Suzanne Goldenson writes in the preface to her book “The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America.” With a few minor exceptions – large cakes, soufflés and other delicate confections – Goldenson says almost anything one could desire to eat can be easily prepared in a fireplace.

The most obvious starting point for me was toasting marshmallows on a long-handled, multi-pronged metal fork for s’mores. If s’mores stick in your mind as a summertime treat, switch up the chocolate for Nutella or a peanut butter cup and the plain graham cracker for a cinnamon or chocolate one, but still have napkins at the ready as the stickiness factor is not diminished by the indoor venue.

Advertisement

That same fork can be used to roast sausages, but to avoid flame flare-ups from dripping pork fat, its best to simply warm-up precooked franks like Maine red snappers or smoked sausages like kielbasa from Smith’s Log Smokehouse in Monroe this way.

Another point of entry into fireplace cookery is roasting Maine potatoes. Washed, pierced and salted before being wrapped in protective aluminum foil, these are nestled into the coals under the flames for 45 to 90 minutes depending on the size of the spud and the heat of your coals. I wavered on whether to wrap them or not, but since the skins of ash-roasted potatoes can’t be eaten, and the skins are my favorite part, I wrap them.

If you scrub a wide fireplace shovel clean, it can double as an implement for melting cheese to pour over both the sausages and potatoes you’ve cooked in the fireplace. Add a few pickles to the table and you’ve got a party.

Cast-iron gear may be required to expand one’s fireplace cookery repertoire. The fireplace in my living room is equipped with a cooking “crane”— a swiveling metal bar mounted on a fireplace wall that swings out over the fire. It has an adjustable hook that can hold a cast iron pot over the fire to cook everything from soup to chestnuts (cue Mel Tormé). Lodge Cast Iron company sells a variety of Dutch ovens that sport both a wire “bail” handle that can hang from the crane and clever, little legs so it can stand over hot coals. Those cost between $55 for a 2-quart capacity and $110 for a 10-quart one.

As I am still dabbling, I posted a Facebook message: “Brunswick folks…does anyone have a cast iron Dutch oven with a handle that lets you hang it to cook over a fire in a fireplace that I could borrow?” I scored a vintage one used by my friend’s father-in-law for this very purpose.

Chestnuts were up first. Soaked for 30 minutes in water and carefully cross-hatched at the ends, I placed them in the borrowed Dutch oven, and they roasted up plump, hot and fragrant in 20 minutes. If you have neither a crane nor a legged Dutch oven, you can pull out the aluminum foil and cook them in a bundle as I did with my coal-roasted potatoes.

Advertisement

Buoyed by chestnut success, I moved on to a quick sausage, tomato and bean stew. I learned two important things from this experiment. I am not brave enough to cook the beans from scratch in the fireplace as regulating a slow simmer over an open fire is a skill that takes time to develop, and I’m not there yet. Secondly, I now know that cooking in the living room requires good mise en place habits. Have all your ingredients prepped and arranged on a tray you can ferry from the kitchen to the fireplace, ready to go when you need them. Chopping garlic on your coffee table is bad for both your back and the general odor of the room.

If you, too, want to try your hand at a one-pot fireplace meal, this recipe is quick, easy, fragrant and tasty. My next fireplace cooking experiment will be baker Jim Lahey’s famous no-knead bread from New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery. The trick will be finding a place in this drafty old house that stays at 70 degrees F for a whole 18 hours during a Maine winter.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Fireplace Spicy Sausage and Bean Stew Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Fireplace Spicy Sausage and Bean Stew

The flavors in this stew meld in 30 minutes. But if you, like me, need it to sit, stewing over the fire a bit longer to accommodate a pre-dinner nap by the fire, add an extra cup of chicken broth to keep it loose. This recipe can stretch to feed eight if you throw some potatoes in the coals and use the stew as a jacket potato topping rather than the main event. If you don’t have a penchant for playing with fire, this stew can easily be prepared on the stove top.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
4 spicy pork sausages
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
2 cups cooked white beans
1 (15-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with their juices
1-2 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 Parmesan rind

In a hot Dutch oven over a flame, add the oil and sear sausages on all sides, then cut into bite-sized chunks. Add the onions and salt, stir and cook until the onions are translucent, 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and rosemary, stir and cook for 1 minute. Add the beans, tomatoes, 1 cup chicken broth, bay leaves and Parmesan rinds.

Simmer the stew for at least 30, but up to 90, minutes, adding more broth if necessary to keep the stew loose as it cooks.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.