Bonfire night seems bound to be a homegrown affair this year. Gone are the huge fireworks displays and roaring bonfires. Instead we’ll be lighting our chiminea and fire basket and looking for tasty treats to console ourselves with. It’s surely therapeutic to remind ourselves that while things are currently a little tough going, the country had its fair share of problems in 1605 too.
Round-the-fire cooking isn’t the same as barbeque cooking: utensils are at a minimum; heat control is down to a wing and a prayer. This is ‘chuck it near the heat and pray the kids won’t go hungry’ cooking. So here are six things to try on 5th November, when you can’t face another toasted marshmallow. They require little more than tin foil, a cast-iron dish, skewers, oven mitts, and a healthy disregard for cutlery and crockery.
The secret to fire cookery is cooking things that don’t need much cooking. Shellfish here come into their own. Take some uncooked prawns and combine in a bowl with some butter, white wine, lemon zest and juice, herbs, finely chopped garlic, chilli flakes, salt and pepper. Then pour onto a big sheet of foil and fold up into a parcel. You may want to add a second layer of foil in case you pierce through—the cooking juices are this dish’s pride and joy. Place the parcel on a tame part of the fire, preferably embers, and cook for ten minutes or so. Have crusty bread, warmed by the fire, on hand to mop up the jus.
Molluscs are wonderful on the fire too. If you have herbs growing in the garden—a bush of bay or woody branches of rosemary or thyme—you can use them to impart a beautifully fragrant, smoky flavour. First toss your chosen molluscs—mussels , clams or cockles—in a bowl with some olive oil. Then put a big bunch of your chosen herbs straight on the embers. Place your molluscs on top, on a wire grill. Cover them with the upside-down bowl, to help capture the smoke. They are done once they’re open (which will take mere minutes; throw away any that remain closed). Make a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon, garlic and parsley to accompany.
When it comes to minimal effort maximum reward, toasties or ‘sliders’ oozing with molten cheese are hard to beat. Take some bread rolls— ciabatta or brioche buns are good—and fill with your sandwich filling of choice and a generous amount of grated cheese. Thick-cut smoked ham and Provolone is my suggestion. You can make a delicious glaze for the buns by melting a quarter of a pack of butter in a little pan with a tablespoon of brown sugar, a tablespoon (or two, if you like it fiery) of Dijon mustard and a tablespoon of dried onion powder. Once melted, simply drizzle over the buns sitting on foil and wrap up tight. These will take only five minutes or so sitting next to the fire until ready. If you use croissants instead of buns, perhaps even quicker.
Continuing the theme of molten cheese, how about loaded nachos for dinner? You may be reticent about lobbing your prized Le Creuset onto the fire, but consider the dividend: layers of tortilla chips with cheese, beans, avocado, onions, tomato and coriander. You can use any old skillet or even foil, but ideally you want a cast-iron Dutch oven which is both deep enough for layering and has the tight-fitting lid to lock in the heat and moisture needed to cook everything through. Oil the bottom of the dish lightly to stop things sticking. Then make a layer of tortillas followed by your toppings.
These are endlessly customisable of course, but obligatory is cheese (any you like—a combination of mozzarella and cheddar works well). I then add black beans or refried beans, cubes of avocado, sliced red onions, fresh coriander, and some jalapenos. You need something tomato-based both for flavour and to create a little liquid for the steam: El Pato hot tomato sauce is perfect, but if that proves elusive you can use any ready-made nacho salsa, good quality passata (I like Mutti) or even just fresh, diced tomatoes. Then repeat the whole process again a couple of times— think of the tortillas as the bricks and the cheese and other ingredients as the mortar. An extra generous smattering of toppings for the top and then pop on the lid and nestle somewhere on the embers or to the side of the fire. If the fire is small and you’re brave, you can put it right on top of the open flame. Just be careful: dinner is at stake. Out of the frying pan, into the fire and all that…
Oh so seasonal, these are the perfect pud for the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness: sweet, mushy and smoky. They are surprisingly healthy as desserts go—though I personally can’t resist adding a scoop of good quality vanilla ice cream for that perfect hot-and-cold mouthful. Simply core the apple three-quarters the way down so the bottom remains intact. Then stuff the cavity tightly with chopped up dried fruit and nuts—try walnuts, pecans and sultanas. You could also use Medjool dates or prunes soaked in calvados to accentuate the apply flavour. Then sprinkle with a mix of cinnamon powder and sugar—I like to use Muscovado for its treacly, molasses taste. Dot with butter and double wrap in foil. Bake on the embers for 15 minutes or so, turning every so often, until the apple feels like a slightly deflated whoppy cushion when prodded. It will be ferociously hot—eat with care.
These are little sweet treats that are perfect to make on the fire so long as you or the children have the patience to sit and turn the skewers regularly, rotisserie style, for a while. They’re best made with Pillsbury crescent roll dough, but while it’s found all over the United States it can be harder to source here. Puff pastry is a fine alternative, just make sure it’s thawed if bought frozen and it’s properly cooked through—10 to 15 minutes over the open flame or embers should do it. Mix a tablespoon of cinnamon powder with a few tablespoons of sugar on a plate. Then cut your puff pastry into slices a couple inches wide and wrap loosely around soaked, wooden skewers (or even clean twigs). Roll each one in the cinnamon-sugar mix until well covered and then cook over the fire until puffed and golden brown.
You can’t forever live off past glories, so now that your world-beating home-baked banana bread is fading from memory it’s time to master a new banana crowd-pleaser. This is as classic as campfire cookery gets: not the ice cream sundae you might imagine, but a hot and gooey banana and chocolate concoction. Of all the banana recipes in my pudding pantheon, the split is the pick of the bunch. The end result is not much to look at but delivers all the sweet satisfaction you want from an autumnal pud.
Take a ripe, unpeeled banana and split lengthways three-quarters the way down with a knife. Holding it in a generously-sized sheet of foil, like a baby in swaddling clothes, insert into the crack seven or eight cubes of milk chocolate (for me, nostalgia dictates it has to be the purple wrapper stuff—Dairy Milk ideally—but the finer-palated amongst you may prefer to use better, darker chocolate). Then wrap the whole thing up in the foil and nestle it somewhere in the embers or to the side of the fire for ten minutes, or until you can’t wait any longer. Unwrap and eat with a fork or simply head-down until your face emerges camouflaged. It’s delicious, but I’m not pretending it’s pretty. If you are in polite company, make a soufflé.