My kids love this method for four reasons: 1, it's a heck of a lot of fun to fling meat around and not get into trouble (you'll understand what I'm talking about in a minute); 2, it looks really cool; 3, there is basically no clean up involved; and 4, it's seriously some of the very best camping food we've ever had -- and that's saying a lot, considering how we eat when we're in the backcountry.
I'll include actual recipes in future posts, but here is a quick primer on how to do this:
This is an ancient cooking method, which some people actually use at home in a fireplace -- but we find that difficult, thanks to the hairy, four-legged canine member of our family. However, it's perfect for when we make winter visits to the camp I run, as there is a gigantic stone fireplace, pictured above, in the small one-room "cabin" where we hunker down in the 8000' elevation, 20 degree weather. (Side note -- I hate calling it a cabin, because that word brings to mind the image of a cozy, comfortable, ski-lodge-type place; but really, it's a drafty building with a plank floor, a couple windows which are boarded up in the winter, and a fireplace. Fortunately in the winter it's also where we store the camp mattresses, books, and propane canisters, so aside from digging through the snow to get to the door which we'd screwed shut three months prior, it easily fulfills what minimal requirements we have for shelter. Plus it's only about twenty yards from the outhouse, so the snowy midnight trek isn't so bad.)
1. String. Basic kitchen twine is perfect for this. The length needed really depends on what you're cooking. I leave an entire spool in the building where we stay in the winter, but if you don't have that sort of future-thinking opportunity, I'd pack about 10 yards, just to be safe.
2. Heavy duty aluminum foil. You'll use this to create a drip pan underneath your food. In the photo above I used a pre-made drip pan, but now we just make our own. When you're done cooking, the foil can be thrown away. I know some people use actual metal drip pans, but for me that would mean having to backpack it in, which just isn't going to happen.
3. Water source. This should be obvious, since you're using fire and all, but you might be surprised...
4. Basting brush or bulb baster, and scissors. Don't forget the scissors. A good utility knife works, too.
5. Food to roast. We've done cornish game hens, whole chicken, racks of lamb (really amazing), and artichokes. Anything that can be roasted can be done a la ficelle. Some things are more difficult to cook than others, but if you can figure out how to get it to hang from a string, you can cook it this way.
6. Accoutrements for turning your drippings into a gravy or pan sauce. This is up to you; I'll include a recipe soon for roasting some flour until it's nice and brown, then using it to form a roux to thicken your pan juices into the best wilderness gravy ever. Until then, treat your pan drippings as you would any other roasting pan drippings at home.
1. Soak your string in water for a couple hours. This is important, as some baking twine gets very brittle when heated and you don't want your game hens falling to the floor when it breaks.
2. Create a drip pan out of your aluminum foil. Make it bigger than you think you need, because it's nearly impossible to get your hens/lamb shank/T-bone steak to hang perfectly balanced, so it will twirl a little off-center. It's also easiest to make one very large drip pan than to try to position individual little pans beneath each string.
3. Season your food. Salt and pepper, obviously, but feel free to use whatever rubs or herbs you would normally use when barbecuing. The hens above were coated with a mix of tarragon, rosemary, and chili pepper flakes.
4. Truss your food. Remember that while hens and other food may get lighter as they cook, they also get smaller...so be sure to truss your food so that the string is wrapped around more than one point. For example, when roasting game hens a la ficelle, I wrap my moistened twine around the wings, across the breast, around the legs, under the back, and attach it again to the wings. Those birds aren't going anywhere. When trussing racks of lamb, connect both ends, not just the center of the rack. Be sure to leave one end very long, as it will attach to your hanging mechanism (#4). It's easier to use one very long piece of twine than to try to tie your hanging twine to your trussed bird -- unless you're particularly adept at perfect knot tying. Personally, I don't trust myself that much.
5. Create a hanging mechanism. If you're using a fireplace, you want your hanger to be just outside the fire -- the point is to roast the meat not from below, but from an adjacent point, so that as it turns, every area is exposed to the flame. If you hang your items above the fire, only the bottom of the bird or steak will be facing the heat, no matter which way the string is twisted. Plus, your precious drippings will land in the fire rather than safely in your drip pan that you so carefully created. For us, there is a long pipe hanging from the ceiling just in front of the gigantic fireplace, which is meant to help keep the building from falling over under the immense snowload but which works perfectly for roasting hens. I tie a cross-bar (a branch, really) to this pipe, and from that bar I can hang six hens. I've seen photos where people use standard pot hooks and even a barbecue rotisserie frame. Use your imagination -- anything will do, but the higher your mechanism sits above your fire, the less often you'll have to re-twist your twine (physics and all, you know). Besides, as my kids will tell you, the longer your twine, the cooler it looks when you "accidentally" swing your hen into your brother's hen, WWF-style.
6. Build your fire. Most of you know that while flame is pretty, coals are hot. For this method, you want a little of both. Keep your coals active, but the flame gives your dinner a beautiful glaze.
7. Tie 'em up. Hang your stuff. This is more difficult than you may anticipate, so allow yourself to screw it up a bit before you get it to work. More than once I tied my hens in a beautiful line, and as the sixth one finished, I heard the first one hit the floor. It helps to have a partner, because it's easier to tie a decent knot without the hanging weight of a large chicken on the other end of your string.
8. Twist. Twist the twine between your fingers as much as possible. When you let it go, your food should slowly turn one direction, then the other. When it slows (and depending on the length of your twine and the weight of your food, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than a half hour), twist it again. It's like a low-tech, manual rotisserie that doesn't have to be carried in or cleaned.
9. Baste. As you develop drippings in your drip pan, baste your bird/lamb/whatever. You may also baste with a separate sauce, though that would mean carrying it to your site in the first place. We've found that game hens create a nice amount of drippings, but lamb does not. When cooking lamb a la ficelle, I use a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar to baste. Butter is fine, but we're not using butter anymore so that isn't really an option for us.
10. Check your temperature. Food safety posts coming later and often, but be sure to use an instant-read thermometer regularly. This method takes longer than other cooking methods, so do not use time as the means for deciding whether or not your food is done. Check the temperature. If you don't own an instant-read, get one. There's a link at the bottom of this post for a great little thermometer that has nicely survived several years of our backpacking and snowshoeing treks, as well as a few years of catering gigs. It still works perfectly well after having been dropped and accidentally left outside in the snow overnight in 20 degree weather, too...not that I've done that or anything...
11. Pay attention to your string. If your string starts to look scorched, dip your fingers in a little water and rub the string. I've never had a string catch fire because we're very careful to roast our food outside the flame of the fireplace. However, I do periodically re-wet the string, just in case.
12. Use your drippings. About ten minutes before you expect your food to be ready, turn your pan drippings into a sauce or gravy, if desired. I just cook it right there in my foil drip pan because doing dishes in the snow with no running water is an unbelievable pain. But if you're in a place where water and clean up is not an issue, feel free to make your gravy over a burner instead.
We've also cooked other stuff in our drip pans while the main course roasts just above it -- brussels sprouts are divine when cooked in the drippings of our racks of lamb. We've also done diced sweet potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, and even biscuit dough -- sort of like a pioneer version of fry bread or Yorkshire pudding. Since one main feature of cooking this way is to alleviate extra work for me, I try to cook our entire meal in and around the fire, using as few utensils and cooking pots as possible. Using the drip pans and their contents in multiple ways really helps achieve this goal.
13. Cut it down. When your food is done, don't try to untie it -- just cut it.
You're finished! Burn the string, fold up your foil, and enjoy the rest of your trip!