On the camping trips me and mine undertake, on a fairly regular bases, we’ve made a tradition of roasting a cut of beef on the camp fire. Any trip that’s set for more than one night usually has this meal thrust upon it’s key night. Either because it’s the night that the most invited guest will be around the fire or it’s the last night, and honored for that. On the plate it’s yer standard cowboy fair: generous slabs of gorgeous beef next to some sort of melty goodness of potatoes and cheese. I usually talk a good game of some sort of sauce (reductions and gravies) but there’s always horse radish. And maybe some sort of salad; or, I had a girl friend who made a fine camp fire pizza that I may write about in the future. It’s always good, filling and flavorful like all food and drink is, served out doors and at 35 hundred feet. But I really enjoy the act of preparing it.
For the sake of this story, it’s always a ‘Diamond Jim’ roast that gets the calling, a day or so before we leave for the mountains. And it’s big too, I usually plan on a pound of meat per guest- for sandwiches and roaming fingers the day after. The “Diamond Jim’ is a boneless rolled chuck roast also called a cross rib roast, named after the Delmonico streak house’s most famous patron. With a fair bit of connective tissue it lends itself well to long, slow cooking.
I remove all the butcher’s packaging and begin the prep. It gets a good rubbing of salt and pepper, lots of both, and maybe another spice or herb but just one more and maybe not. Then it goes in to a large, freezer zip, bag. After which, I add a healthy dose of olive oil and a few slices of cut lemon. The acid in the lemon doesn’t, as you’ve been told all your life, tenderize the meat. No, the citrus bite survives the cooking and increases the saliva response, letting the enzymes in your mouth break down the bite of beef faster, giving you a ‘tender’ mouth feel. And when the meat meets the heat the oil will aid in moving that heat through the roast quickly and more efficiently. Get most of the air out and double bag the baby. Put it in the bottom, back half of the ‘fridge, far from the door and down where the cold is falling. When you pack the cooler, choose your best sealing one; and put it in the bottom under fake ice. Until the ’day of’ that cooler should be opened as little as possible, don’t go putting your beer in there. Just manage the ice and keep it cold.
Saturday morning shows up to the slow groggy grins of a vacation hang over. You rub the sleep from your eyes and recall a long night around the camp fire. The round plucked notes of several guitars, the singing, the bottle of something that made warm hand shake passes around, they all begin to come back to you. So your slow, and you make a few efforts to move your chair into the early morning sun. Some deity wearing your friends face gets it together to make coffee, and after an hour of letting the caffeine and nicotine do their do you can usually form whole sentences
The day is spent talking. We talk about the night before. We talk about the night to come. We make plans to scare up some fire wood. There’s talk of fishing, and perhaps some actual fishing. By this second or third morning the mind is laid bare by the beauty around you, and the joy in the company shared, so that whole hours pass talking out any random subject that manages to find itself in one of those complete sentences. But in the back of your mind, there waits the beef.
It may count as the only mental effort of the day, but you begin to plan. You make guesses about how much wood it’ll take. You look out for shapely rocks to add to the fire ring, ones that may hold your cast iron, ones that may be use to partition and manage coals. You make sure your tools are clean, that you have indeed brought enough foil. You begin sizing up who you can get to handle the side dishes. Your brain sends complaint notices to the hands for their trips to the beer cooler. “If we only had a cell or two more to work out the mass to heat ratios”, they say. But alas, their complaints go unheeded and eventually the decision is made to ‘wing’ most of the math, per usual. Eventually it starts getting dark. The fire is lit and you start getting hungry looks from the other campers. Time to get to work.
Take the roast out of the cooler at least an hour before it’s going on. Leave it to come up a few degrees temp. wise. If your higher up or out later in the year this may be kind of futile. But anyway, leave it on the table in the double bags while you get things ready. Basically the plan is to sear the outside in the cast iron skillet and then wrap it in foil and roll it around in the coals until it’s done. We’re searing to put color on it, intensify the flavors on the outside and develop what, my buddy, Steve calls “the crispy bits”. We are not, however, ‘sealing in the juices’. That is another fib perpetrated by ad men. The nature of muscle makes it so full of pours and surface area that it’s impossible to seal up, a side at a time, on any ‘flat’ cooking surface, and even less so in any oven. It just doesn’t happen that way. You will always loose moisture. It’s actually what makes beef taste ‘good’ ,apart from the fat marbling. Remember removing water intensifies flavor, it’s also why one dry ages beef. It’s the reduction of these escaping liquids, the caramelization of the releasing sugars and protein that is the bases of all French cooking.
Back to our little slice of heaven. You’ve built a big ass fire , and let it burn down into a bed of coals. Sometimes I cheat, especially if it’s a large group being fed, and throw down a small sack of briquettes. You also keep a portion of the pit burning large fat flames, for heat, light and to make more coals. I Have a 12” cast iron lodge skillet that I make a home for (a perch if you will) on river rocks just above the pit of red shimmering charcoal heat. It gets hot. And when it is, the meat goes on. If I’ve had a few and I’m feeling cocky, I give the pan an end first. Stand that bad boy up! It’s dramatic, and your friends will marvel (in your mind) at the discipline it takes to balance the damn thing there with a bb-q fork, spatula or large spoon. This admiration is negated with your sweating, cussing and crying for cold beers to be brought to you. When the pan lets go, then and only then can you lay it on it’s side. While we’re not sealing it we are trying to color the outside, not leave the outside stuck in the pan rapidly turning into ash. Color it good, but do it fast.
Meanwhile, back at the bat cave…um, er picnic table, you’ve readied the metal swaddling that will take the roast goodness to it’s final rest.
This is at least two layers of heavy duty aluminum foil, extra layers for extra weight or odd shapes. Have some sort of idea how your going to enclose it. Don’t just ball it up, with no idea how the thing gets unwrapped. Thats how you get ash and dirt in the bundle and how you lose all the cooking juices. Which you’d want if you were going to make gravy, or needed something to soak up with bread.
As soon as the rocket hot pan has been introduced to all sides of our ‘Jim’, get it into the foil and close it up tight. The pan comes off the fire, a job well done, and the perch is shoved aside. Did you have to refresh the coals to get the charring done? I bet you did. A new coal pit is built, larger and deeper with an eye towards ‘bowl’. Then the voodoo begins.
“How hot is it in there?”, you wonder again and again. “How long has it been on that side (or face)?”, you ask yourself over and over. For, what and hour or two?, you work it. Spinning and turning every ten minutes or so. Trying to trick it into believing it’s in a nice constant oven. Working the coals to and fro. “With what?” you ask. “Your hand, ya baby”, no, don’t use your hand…not a lot anyway. Third degree burns aren’t any fun in the woods. I’ve used tongs and sticks, but my favorite is a shovel. Flip it again, maybe start squeezing it a little. Start getting a sense of how tight it’s getting, how firm. And your talking and laughing, your probably doing a similar dance with foil loaf pans full of tubers, herb and onion. Time passes and the beers have begun to kick in, you see the beef lust in Sullivan’s eyes and ya start thinking your close . So ya pull it.
Stop. Just put it down. There on the table or cutting board. Begin to sing and dance. Now is the time to pull out all of the slight of hand you can preform by fire light. Because you must keep, anyone (yourself included), from opening that foil for at least a half hour. C’mon, there’s other prep to do, just forget it and let it rest. Let the carry over heat finish it’s magic, let the juices become liquid again. Let them reabsorb.
The foil gives up it’s contents on to the cutting board, and is tossed into the fire with the thanks of a grateful belly. It’s beautiful there, for a moment, on the board, carving knife in your hand- a hush may fall over the crowd. Dark and steaming, crispy in places, just gathering a small pool of juice. And the first slice is like cutting into joy, it feels a little naughty. The cuts fall away with little effort displaying the pink center, ringed in paler done-ness. The first few cuts never reach the board, the hands come (politely, but urgently) from all sides, and are used for final proclamation. It is done. It is good. I’m going to need another beer.