Sometime, millions of years ago, someone probably threw a hunk of meat on an open fire and watched it sizzle.
The barbecue was born.
The methods of cooking over flames have been refined since that time, but not that much.
One expert around here on open-fire cooking is Ed Pontbriand, a retired National Park Service ranger and frequent guide, planner, chef and server on river rafting trips.
Pontbriand taught a workshop on Dutch Oven cooking as part of the Schoodic Institute’s Winter Festival Feb. 26-March 6 and shared his tips with The American.
He earned his culinary chops at the University of Maine at Machias while studying outdoor recreation.
His mentor was Richard Scribner, now retired from the university, who taught Pontbriand and other students how to cook over coals or fire during several river rafting trips.
Pontbriand said he carried that knowledge with him when he became a National Park Service ranger.
He led many river rafting trips as district ranger at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado, including many expeditions with researchers rafting down the 92-mile Yampa and Green River National Scenic Rivers.
The researchers were reintroducing elk and bighorn sheep to the area and were studying endangered peregrine falcons and the migration of razorback suckers, a freshwater fish.
“I did all the cooking and guiding for 14 to 16 people,” Pontbriand said. “I would buy the food, supply the rafts, plan the whole trip, which lasted about five to seven days.”
His main cooking vessels were two cast iron kettles with legs that were safely stored on a raft in waterproof food boxes.
“Anything you can cook at home you can cook in those things,” Pontbriand said.
That means pies, muffins, other pastries and bread as well as main dishes.
Pontbriand turns the kettle into an oven by putting hot coals underneath and in the lid. He places the lid over the top of the pot so that the pastries are heated from the top and bottom.
He said he doesn’t think the food actually tastes better than if it was prepared in an indoor kitchen, but the fresh air adds to the experience.
“It’s the ambiance,” said Pontbriand. “It’s the fact that you had to work at it a little bit to cook it. That adds a little flavor.”
When river rafting or camping he might start the day with Mexican eggs — scrambled eggs, sausage and salsa on tortillas.
That would be accompanied by hot coffee, juice, and muffins or maybe a cranberry apple or apple rhubarb crisp reheated from the previous night’s dinner.
Lunch would be simple: sandwiches, potato chips, fruit and vegetables.
The artistry is saved for dinner. One of Pontbriand’s mainstays are chicken fajitas with salsa, chips, guacamole “and lots of margaritas.”
He can even make ice cream using a metal ice cream maker and ice from the food lockers.
Brownies with a dollop of fresh vanilla ice cream is not beyond his capable reach.
He likes the outdoor cooking because it adds a layer of complexity.
“It’s mostly the challenge of doing this with an open fire, managing the heat, cooking everything in one pot and serving a group,” Pontbriand said. “The best part is the wine that goes with it.”
He also likes to pass the skill along to other people, such as those attending the Schoodic Institute Winter Festival workshop.
The Dutch oven or kettle can be found at L. L. Bean, Cabela’s and Renys, among other locations.
The pot can be aluminum to reduce the weight. But Pontbriand believes the gold standard is a cast iron pot.
“It holds the heat better and you get a better result in the end,” he said. His pot is large enough to accommodate a 12-inch pie plate.
Pontbriand travels down the river with spices, dried and fresh, and lots and lots of salsa.
Some commercial river rafting companies bring what looks like a full kitchen with them along with tables, linens and candles for high paying travelers.
Pontbriand is not as fancy, but follows the same food safety standards, such as using a lot of stainless steel, separating hazardous foods and washing his hands before and after cooking.
Apple/ Cranberry Crisp
A favorite dish from a 24-day Grand Canyon river trip in 2013. Serves 10 river runners.
10 Macintosh or Cortland apples
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
1 Tbsp. corn starch as thickener
½ cup sugar (if the apples are already sweet, then reduce this amount)
½ cup flour
2 cups of oatmeal
1 cup brown sugar (if the apples are already sweet, then reduce this amount)
2 tsps. cinnamon or to taste
½ stick or ½ cup butter or oil to help brown crisp and hold it together
12-inch Dutch oven and hot coals
Spray Pam or coat inside of Dutch oven with butter. Line the bottom of the oven with sliced apples and add water to bottom. Add in all the rest of the apple slices and cranberries. Sprinkle in the flour, sugar and corn starch. Mix the brown sugar, oatmeal, cinnamon and butter into a chunk paste. Sprinkle mixture on top. This will be the crisp portion.
Note: If you have used the Dutch oven previously for spicy foods, this dessert may pick up some of the leftover flavors from the oven’s patina. To prevent this, add four small rocks to the bottom of the Dutch oven. Make the dessert in a 10-inch pie plate and place the pie plate on top of the rocks in the bottom of the oven. By adding the rocks, you let the heat circulate over and around the pie plate giving the crisp.
Cook for 35 to 45 minutes until golden and apples are mush. There should be eight briquettes on top and 8 to 10 on the bottom. Temperature in oven should be around 375 degrees F.
Chicken St Croix
A favorite dish enjoyed on the St Croix River. Serves six hungry river runners
Six chicken breasts
Six to eight medium potatoes
Six large carrots
1 large green pepper
1 large onion
Butter or olive oil
Salt and pepper
10 slices of bacon
½ cup white wine
12-inch Dutch oven and hot coals
Preheat Dutch oven over hot coals (no coals on lid yet). Add butter or olive oil and brown the chicken. When the chicken is brown, usually after about 10 minutes, remove the chicken and set aside. Add more olive oil or butter and sauté the green peppers and onions.
Slice the potatoes into ¼-inch-thick pieces. Cut carrots into approximately 4-inch long pieces and then into quarters lengthwise. Leave most of the liquid mixture from above in the Dutch oven. Now line the oven with the potato slices. Once lined with the potatoes, add the chicken and some carrots. You can add other vegetables as you wish.
Now add the rest of the potatoes and carrots on top of the chicken along with any of liquid sautéed mixture. Add wine. Lay the bacon on top of potatoes so it will get golden brown in the cooking process. Add salt and pepper to your liking.
Add the Dutch oven cover and cook for 35 to 45 minutes with 12 briquettes on top and 12 to 14 on the bottom. Oven temperature should be around 375 degrees F.