As soon as the weather starts warming up, my craving for barbecue kicks in.
There's nothing like the flavor of food cooked over fire. It's probably a throwback to my days as a backcountry ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. While deep in the Rocky Mountain outback for months on end, fire was not only integral to my survival but a means of supreme culinary satisfaction. Everything seemed to taste so good under that open sky! Just the crackle of kindling can rouse my appetite.
It's more than mere nostalgia, though. Give me steak, chicken or fresh strips of garden peppers and zucchini - anything is better if it's fire roasted. I suppose that's also why backyard barbecuing is so popular, even serving as a pure passion for those who are seriously inclined to cook outdoors. On some instinctive level, we all sense an intimate connection between fire, food and a full belly.
If you'd like to cook over your own backyard bonfire and you don't want to excavate a pit (or your local laws forbid it), here are a few options for creating more "civilized" camp cookouts.
Chimineas are portable outdoor fireplaces made of terracotta, iron or copper. Not all chimineas come equipped with a grill, but www.cozydays.com offers a cool chiminea with a spark screen and grill set for $375. It's handcrafted of 100-percent recycled copper and uses wood, charcoal or fatwood, a natural wood fire starter that can be left outdoors without the elements impairing its performance (www.fatwoodonline.com). Spark screens and a fireproof mat are imperative if using a chiminea on a wooden deck or patio.
A metal fire bowl offers a more "open pit" effect. Some are as simple as a bowl with legs, while others are enclosed with glass or screens to contain flying sparks. Fire bowls were traditionally used for burning a few small pieces of wood, but they can now burn charcoal. Fire Sense makes a stainless steel bowl, equipped for grilling, called the HotSpot Urban 650. It has a hinged grill, an ash collection unit and a dome fire screen. The HotSpot sells for $133 at www.heater-home.com. And here's a smokin' new fire bowl you may not have heard of: Tank Fire Pits are custom-made in Texas from recycled military tank parts! These heavy-duty pits aren't cheap, but they offer all sorts of accessory options for grilling, and they're built to last. Learn more at www.dancingfire.com/firepit_tank.
If you're a diehard fan of the good ol' backyard barbecue grill, you probably also have your preference of charcoal or gas. From an environmental perspective, there are pros and cons to each. Gas produces less carbon than charcoal, but some of us are more finicky about flavor. Plus, grilling over hot coals is somehow more romantic. It takes a bit more wooing to create a charcoal fire than a quick-switch gas flame, so one tends to put more heart into it. Just be sure to skip the big name-brand briquettes that are infused with artificial fillers and chemicals. Look for all-natural 100 percent pure "lump" or "chunk" charcoal, like Ozark Oak Natural Charcoal (www.bbq.com) or Cowboy Charcoal (www.cowboycharcoal.com). The coals light easily, burn slowly, create less ash and don't spew smelly fumes.
Another way to commit to greener grilling this season is to give up lighter fluid once and for all. It not only taints the taste of your food but also pollutes the air. The solution? A Weber Chimney Starter (www.weber.com). It's a simple metal cylinder with a grate near the bottom and a handle mounted on the side. Unlit charcoal is placed inside the cylinder, and rolled-up newspaper is placed under the grate and lit. The charcoal at the bottom of the cylinder ignites first and the "chimney effect" lights the remaining charcoal above. You'll begin to see smoke coming out of the top. It'll take 10 to 20 minutes for the coals to light, and you'll know they're ready when you see gray ash starting to form.
Of course, the greenest way to serve up your grilled fare is on washable plates and utensils. But sometimes - especially when you're grilling for a large group - you desperately dream of disposables. GreenFeet has the answer: Bamboo Veneerware disposable dinner plates and utensils are made from organically grown bamboo. These woody wonders are safely burnable or compost-ready, and they're hardy and attractive to boot. Buy them at www.greenfeet.com. For paper towels that are easier on the planet, pick up a couple of rolls of Seventh Generation recycled, unbleached and chemical-free towels from your local grocer or from www.blueheronorganics.com.
Shepherdess Pot Roast
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 2 1/2 hours
Makes 8 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds elk or beef shoulder roast
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cups chopped onions
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups water
2 cups cubed potatoes
2 cups brussels sprouts
4 cloves garlic, smashed
Place kettle in or over your campfire, and add olive oil. Place roast in kettle, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides. Add carrots, onions, herbs, wine and water. Cover. Simmer slowly over your fire for 1-1/2 hours. Add potatoes, brussels sprouts and garlic, and cook for at least 1 more hour or until meat pulls apart easily.
MaryJane Butters is an organic lifestyle expert and the editor of MaryJanesFarm magazine. Write to her care of United Feature Syndicate, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016, or e-mail email@example.com.