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Outdoor gourmets: Cooking without a kitchen

Thai pork kebabs

The barbecue may be a failsafe option when it comes to outdoor cooking, but there are other ways you can still make delicious food without it.

Whether grilling a classic burger or smoking a whole fillet of fish, many outdoor gourmets fail to look beyond the trusted barbecue.

So is it time to put down the tongs and try something new?

In the past year there were 106 million barbecues in the UK, down 2.5% on the previous year, according to research by Kantar Worldpanel.

But traditional cooking techniques using earth, fire and wood have often been overlooked in mainstream cuisine.

Cook it slowly:

Shoulder of lamb

Roast a shoulder of lamb with herbs and honey

Prepare a slow cooked split pea dahl

Slow roast pork belly with boulangere potatoes

In a move away from molecular gastronomy, top chefs are now looking to the past for culinary inspiration.

"Outdoor cooking has been so focused on barbecuing and American and Spanish grills. But there's so much more to it," says chef Niklas Ekstedt.

His restaurant Ekstedt, that he set up in Stockholm, Sweden with chef Gustav Otterburg in 2011, was recently awarded a Michelin star for its rustic cuisine using long-lost cooking techniques.

"Basically what we have found out is that when electricity was introduced to the Swedish and Nordic kitchen, all the invention stopped and our cooking stopped evolving," says Mr Ekstedt.

"Everything that came into our cuisine was all imported from France, Italy, Mexico etc. It wasn't until the late 90s that chefs started reinventing our cooking culture."

Start Quote

Don't be afraid of the fire itself... you can use it for cooking, frying and boiling”

End Quote Niklas Ekstedt Chef at restaurant Ekstedt

Using birch wood as the only source of heat, all of the food served in the restaurant is cooked over an open fire pit or in a wood-fired oven.

"The big difference between our cooking and the grill is that we use direct fire instead of amber," says Mr Ekstedt.

"When a lot people cook outdoors they wait until the amber is golden and perfect for grilling meat, but the wood and the fire itself are also really useful.

"Don't be afraid of the fire itself. It can be a great heat source but you can also use it for cooking, frying and boiling."

Mr Ekstedt recommends giving potatoes a smoky flavour by cooking them in a cast iron pot over the fire, with a small amount of water and salt.

"Tomatoes cooked in a cast iron pot on the fire works really well.

Squid and garlic cooking on an open fire Cooking squid with garlic on an open fire gives it a "unique character"

"When cooking fish, we often take juniper wood, soak it in water, put the fish on top and then put the whole lot in the fire so that the juniper wood burns slowly.

"It's a really good way of cooking meat too, we sear it in the amber ashes first so that it turns black.

Build your own pit oven:

Venison cooked in a pit oven
  • First dig a hole in the ground in an area with good drainage. Make sure the pit is big enough for the meat or cast iron pot that you're using. Line the pit with large igneous stones such as granite, which will not explode when heated.
  • Gather some wood and start a fire on top of the stones in the pit. Light another fire alongside the pit with smaller stones around it.
  • After a couple of hours extinguish the pit fire, brush down the stones and put in your choice of meat or a cast iron pot full of vegetables. Cover the pot with some of the smaller stones that have been heated on the fire.
  • To finish off, fill the pit with soil and turf, then leave the meat to cook for three to five hours.

Source: Rosie Hazleton, Wildrose Escapes

Disclaimer: Always seek advice before building a pit oven and make sure you have the appropriate heat protective clothing and safety equipment

"We then put it into the cast iron pot with the lid on for a while, which adds a real smoky, almost Viking touch to it."

In many parts of Northern Europe the landscape is still used as a cooking device, particularly in Iceland where heat from geothermal springs lends itself to bread baking underground.

Icelandic rye bread or "rugbrauo" is a dark, dense sweet bread traditionally steamed in wooden casks.

Chef Tom Sellers who owns restaurant Story in London, spent last summer travelling around Iceland to learn about its food production techniques.

"Their food has a real identity and they make use of their environment - the baking of the bread under the ground blew me away."

It is commonsense in Iceland to use the heat from the ground, explains Arthur Bogasun, chairman of the Icelandic National Association of Small Boat Owners.

"You can make your bread by putting it into a container from milk, and you just bury it and leave it there for 12 hours," he says.

If you don't have access to hot springs, there are other ways of cooking food in the earth.

Ed Kenney is head chef at Town restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii.

He recently gave a masterclass on the Polynesian tradition of imu cooking at the Melbourne International Food and Wine festival.

Icelandic rye bread Icelandic rugbrauo is sometimes called "thunder bread" due to its high fibre content

The technique is very similar to the Maori hangi from New Zealand, and involves cooking food slowly in an underground pit for up to 24 hours.

"It is not an everyday method of cooking, but is instead reserved for the preparation of large celebratory meals," says Mr Kenney.

"It is also irreplaceable in producing some of those nostalgic, authentic Hawaiian dishes such as kalua pig (imu-cooked pulled pork) and roasted uala (sweet potatoes)."

Mr Kenney likes to crush up banana stumps and add them to the imu to create steam and insulate the food from the hot rocks.

"Any food that benefits from long, slow cooking at a low temperature in a moist environment is beyond compare: smoky, delectable, delicious.

"Whole animals, such as pig and lamb, have yielded amazing results."

Prehistoric inspiration:

Sweet bean cakes

Jacqui Wood, an experimental archaeologist and author of a book on Prehistoric Cooking, explains how to create prehistoric dishes.

Sweet bean cakes: "You can make these with brown flour, honey, butter, processed beans and roasted hazelnuts. They make a really delicious, nutritious snack and are lovely cooked on a griddle or barbecue."

Elderberry bread: "Wild yeast is found on the skin of elderberries so if you sprinkle some onto bread dough when they're ripe they will make the bread rise. Try baking it on a hot stone."

Crispy nettles: "I think nettles taste disgusting when boiled but if you fry them in hot butter they turn crispy and taste delicious. You can sprinkle some onto a salad and they taste very much like crispy seaweed."

Find out more about British Prehistory

Smoke your own fish at home

A similar technique has been tested in the UK by Rosie Hazleton, a trained archaeologist and chef who runs prehistoric cooking courses in Higher Crochail near Inverness.

"We have evidence of pit ovens across the British Isles dating back to the Bronze Age.

"It's a technique that's relatively simple and works really well.

"We usually wrap a piece of venison or lamb in dough, and then leave it to cook in the pit oven," says Ms Hazleton.

She likes to crack open the dough and use it as a plate, to reduce the need for additional pots and kitchenware.

"I like using dough because it seals in all the juices from the meat.

"When you break it open after cooking, all the juices come out and you've got an instant gravy.

"It's nice and easy as well, because you don't need anything else."

Another technique Ms Hazleton teaches involves wrapping fish in grass or reeds, and then covering with clay.

"Hunter-gatherers would originally have used river clay to bake fish, so obviously you don't need to use a container.

"Just leave the clay parcel by the side of the fire for a couple of hours then crack it open and you'll find the fish is beautifully cooked inside."

Some of these techniques may seem like a lot of effort just for one meal, but the process can be just as enjoyable as the eating.

"I like the idea of cooking outside and spending a whole day outside," says Ms Hazleton.

"A lot of these techniques are trial and error and it really doesn't really matter what you cook, it's the whole event that counts."

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