When you have 6 fireplaces, you feel compelled to learn to cook in your fireplace. Actually, my interest in fireplace cooking started back in the mid 1970's with the Massasoit Historical Association bought the Maxwell House and I began to learn to cook and bake there.
I've discovered that any cooking technique we can use, short of microwaving, our ancestors could have used AND... it often tastes better using this "antique" technology. The only thing I haven't tried is deep fat frying and while it's possible I am a bit "juberous", a saying of my paternal grandmother meaning dubious, of working with large quantities of hot fat so close to fire.
Meat takes on a whole new flavor when roasted in front of the naked flame. Our ancestors at first rebelled against the taste of it cooked in a metal oven, feeling it tasted more steamed than roasted.
It has been my experience while roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving that this method takes no longer than in a "conventional" oven and even though the skin takes on a mahogany color and one worries that the flesh will be dried out it is always juicy.
Recently there was a program on public television discussing the way to guarantee a juicy turkey. While I have not tried the brining process they suggest, I was amazed at their cooking method. They suggested first starting the "bird" on one side, flipping it to the other and then ending with it on its back. As I listened to the directions I realized that that is the way my turkey cooks in a tin kitchen. Every twenty minutes or so I would open the door, baste and then move the spit into a different position so that the bird would be rotated during roasting. Isn't it amazing how some things old become new again?
The turkey looked burned but it was one of the juiciest birds I have ever eaten. The gentleman doing the carving was an English friend visiting family at Thanksgiving. Of course, with a newly reactivated fireplace I felt compelled to prepare a New England Thanksgiving dinner even if the state of the kitchen walls, i.e. before replastering, made the room look an unholy mess.
I don't always use the tin kitchen since it takes about an hour to clean after use. Aluminum foil is, however, always a necessity, since this form of cooking is MESSY!!!
My bake oven, shown here before the door, is of the period when placement had been moved from the rear of the fireplace to the side but before the time when they were being built with cast iron doors.
A fire is lit in the oven and depending on a number of variable takes around an hour and a half to get up to temperature, at least in my oven.
While this is an overexposed picture you can see how the bricks are beginning to burn clean. This is a sign that the oven is almost heated enough.
The hot coals are chopped up and sit for a short time on the oven floor. They are then raked out and if I've done my job well the oven must cool down so baking can be started. It's easy to let the oven cool down. Try raising the heat after you've raked out the coals and you know why it's best to superheat the oven! The dome gets swabbed out with a wet broom.
In the next picture the oven I didn't give the fire enough time to let the bake oven be "self-cleaning" and I didn't clean as well as I should but I was in a rush to get the bread in as it was over-proofing.
When I first started using the fireplace I posed my mother demonstrating down hearth cooking for a project I was working on.
Anything that is to be baked goes in, longest baking items in the back. Here a 1 and 1/2 lb loaf of bread takes around 25 minutes. I can get 2 bakings from one firing. The second baking, if it's bread doesn't come out as golden or crusty as the first baking. Every time I bake in the bake oven I am amazed that it ACTUALLY works. People ask:" Do you make pizza in it?" I answer: "NO! It's too much work to fire the oven to use it for pizza." I bake bread, pies, cookies and custards. I have dried herbs after the baking is done. You can stick your hand in the next morning and still feel a little heat remaining. I am not a baked bean fan, however, I once put in a pot of baked beans with a Friday night baking, let it sit over night, pulled the pot out the next morning and then kept it beside the fire in the hearth the next day until the noon meal. They were the best beans I have EVER eaten!
In a house such as mine, meals would, most likely, have been simple one pot meals served in the middle of the day.
Pluck the few missed feathers from a chicken.
Add some herbs and simmer gently.
You end up with a juicy boiled chicken.
I knew of the main meal being in the middle of the day but didn't understand it UNTIL I invited my first guests for a fireplace prepared meal...EVENING OF COURSE... so the room would look better... and then only by candlelight. Have you ever tried to watch veal collops (thin slices of veal as in veal scaloppini) that you're browning over a fire and do it by candlelight? Well... you either CAN'T SEE or you're in danger of dripping wax on the veal as you TRY TO SEE. It became immediately clear to me WHY the main meal was during daylight hours.
I've roasted turkey, chicken, beef and lamb, made soups, stews, Welsh, English and Portuguese rabbits, broiled steaks on a gridiron, prepared fricassees, cooked beef a la mode ( NO it doesn't involve ice cream), boiled puddings in a pudding cloth in a hanging pot, made custard, used a waffle iron and also a wafer iron in the fire but my favorite thing to do is simply to boil a ham. I have NO IDEA why but there is something about boiling a ham in an iron pot over the fire that does magical things to the flavor of the ham. I've boiled hams in iron pots on the stove just to see if it was the pot. The ham wasn't as good. It must be a combination of the iron pot and the smoke from the fire that makes this simply prepared meat indescribable.
Ham simmers in the pot on the left while chicken cooks in the covered dutch oven.
Chicken on a string is a low-tech way of cooking requiring a minimum or equipment.
A step up is roasting a chicken on a spit.
This chicken wasn't, I fear, as well trussed as it should have been.
The highest tech and most efficient way of roasting is to use a tin kitchen.
The little door in the back makes basting much easier.
Since this IS Rhode Island, we have to make jo(h)nnycakes using Kenyon's stone ground white corn meal from Usquepaugh, RI or when I can get it corn meal from Gray's Mill is Adamsville, RI. Only once was I able to get meal from Carpenter's Mill in Perryville RI, and that was because a friend lived in the area. Rhode Islander's are notorious for not liking to travel outside their locals. To drive over and get some meal I fear I would have to pack a lunch, probably a dinner and even check on overnight accommodations available in the South Kingston area.
I'm not a native, I won't enter into the milk or water, thick or thin, east bay or west bay jonnycake controversy. And, I must confess that I have never mastered baking them on a board. I have to be content with using a hanging griddle when I need a "fix".
At this point I want to put in a plug for my favorite Rhode Island book, a book of gentle humor.... by an author who I think should be better known, Thomas Robinson Hazard, known as Shepherd Tom, who wrote a series of articles for The Providence Journal which were later collected in book form and published as The Jonny-Cake Papers.
In 1976 The Massasoit Historical Association of Warren held a jonny-cake cooking contest. It was held outside so we had to use grills which don't really allow the pans to heat up high enough. The winner of the contest, a swamp Yankee who could trace her roots to the first settler in town and who had among her family tree, Roby Cole, who local legend says prepared jonnycakes for Lafayette, won the contest. She said, under her breath to the judge, "I add a little evaporated milk to my batter. I think it makes the jonnycakes creamier."
Firing the bake oven isn't the only way to bake bread.
These were baked in a dutch oven and a potjie