As a kid I’d set up a little wood grill in the yard — a few bricks with an oven grate across them and a wood fire underneath.
The early culinary results were not Michelin star worthy — a pan of water atop the grate with a Schmidt’s Meat Market hotdog in the pan, awaiting a white bun and ketchup.
A few years ago my sister actually ran across a recipe card I’d written that she found among some old family photos and sent it to me. It read: Hot Dog. Put in water. Heat.
My wood-fire techniques expanded over the years, especially since we’ve had a cabin up North.
Cooking on wood fire is a continuing learning experience. I once tried a technique of creating a nice coal pile and throwing a steak directly onto the coals. The guy on the TV show ended up with a perfectly charred rare steak. Mine had a lot of ash on the outside, burned more than charred, and kinda dry. I won’t be throwing another expensive steak on the coals.
There isn’t much you can’t do over a fire. Put meat and vegetables on the grate. Char Romaine or iceberg lettuce chunks. Slow cook a chicken or bake bread inside a Dutch oven, coals nestled around the bottom and some on top of the lid.
A hobo dinner of cut-up potatoes, hamburger, baked beans and onions wrapped in tinfoil and slow cooked on embers is a guilty pleasure. Pizza, nachos, salmon, mac and cheese, whole tomatoes, octopus, clams and pretty much any food imaginable can be done over fire.
My grandson Daultin was excited to bring his Boy Scouts Dutch oven cake recipe to the cabin. Even before he started making it, you knew it couldn’t be a disappointment: Two cans of pie filling, a box of cake mix, one whole stick of butter. Bake over coals for 45 minutes.
Cooking with fire or smoking meats have become increasingly popular in recent years. There’s a primitive, romantic technique with a dash of danger mixed in. And there’s nothing that matches wood smoke flavor.
Those who don’t want to go full old-school can get the wood smoke flavor with wood chips in a charcoal Weber grill or use an electric smoker that burns chips.
Beyond the incomparable flavor, wood cooking is an engaging, hands-on experience that you can always improve on but never master.
There will be the scorched pork chops, the burgers that fall on the ground or into the fire, the undercooked meat with overcooked outside.
While cooking outdoors has always been popular, bringing the fire back inside has gained ground. More restaurants have wood-fired grills in the kitchen or tempt guests with a wood fire under slow-turning rotisserie chickens near the entryway.
Our growing fascination with cooking over wood would probably bewilder our ancestors. I’m guessing when the gas stove was invented they couldn’t wait to retire the cast iron wood cook stove.
But in our time of microwaves, induction ovens, vegetable steamer bags and frozen dinners, the return to the oldest form of cooking has appeal for many people.
I’ve done a lot of brats, but I’ve never tried cooking hot dogs over the grill since I was a kid. Maybe I’ll give it a try.
This time I’ll go bold and put it right on the grate.
Tim Krohn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 507-344-6383.