How not to cook a stew…

The first time us Clancy’s went “camping” together things didn’t go exactly according to plan. We were staying at a family member’s property near Eucumbene – in the south of NSW near the Snowy Mountains. It’s about a 40-minute drive from Cooma and the same from Jindabyne and in the winter that means it’s cold.

We were staying in what used to be worker’s cabins from the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme. We sleep in sleeping bags so, in a way, it feels like camping – or at least glamping – so that’s what we call it.  There’s a bathroom inside as well as an outside dunny with no door and a view to the bush and any passing kangaroo. We have a television for DVDs – there’s no TV reception -and aside from one point just outside the kitchen window, there’s no mobile reception.

The plan was simple. Even though there is a kitchen inside, we weren’t going to use it. No inside cooking. Unless it could be cooked outside- either on the barbecue or in the “camp” fire, we wouldn’t eat it.  How hard could it be?

Part of the plan was inspired by pure laziness – if we didn’t use the stove/oven we wouldn’t need to clean it before we left. Part of the plan was inspired by the thrill of the great outdoors. Just how cool would it be to cook as if we were really camping and not just pretend camping?

Clancy was cooking his world famous lamb roast. Ok, it wasn’t world famous yet – after all, it was the first time he had tried this particular recipe – but it soon would be. His previous camp oven roasts had been spectacular. Apparently.

The fire had been built that morning and fed during the day. The pit for the camp oven had been dug and the coals carefully selected. We all sat around in thousands of layers of clothes, muffled by scarves and beanies, protected by gloves and jackets. The kids roasted marshmallows on the ends of sticks. The adults poured tumblers of red wine or fetched fresh beers and nibbled on cocktail hour.

When we finally decided our “oven” had been pre-heated to the guesstimated temperature of exactly 180C, Clancy heaved the cast iron camp oven into place. Then we waited. The kids went inside to watch DVDs.

The sun went down and the stars came out. More stars than I have ever seen. But still, the roast wasn’t cooking. We changed coals and sat back to wait. Obviously, the pit had a faulty temperature gauge.

Finally, it was sizzling and as the wind whirled around the fire pit, so too did the smells- lamb, rosemary and garlic. Our mouths watered. So we drank more (now chilled) wine.

The lamb that first night took almost 2 hours to cook. My brother declared that it normally took around an hour. It tasted as good as it smelled, although was a tad underdone for second-day sammies.

Sunday was our turn. Bacon and eggs on the barbie had to be finished inside when the gas bottle was found to be empty.  Not a good start. At least my world famous (I was convinced it would be spectacular) slow cooked beef stew would save the day.

Gravy beef, veggies, a few tins of tomato, a bottle of wine and enough garlic to scare away the kangaroos was thrown into the camp oven. Last night had made us cautious – we didn’t want this to cook as quickly as the lamb so contemplated using a tripod and hanging the camp oven from it. A strong, blustery westerly put paid to that idea.

So, it was back to the pit. The coals weren’t as good and it had been a struggle to maintain the fire. At 3pm it was sleeting and the wind chill had brought the ambient temperature to around minus a lot.

We persisted. We estimated our oven to be at the perfect slow cooking temperature of 150C and oohed and aahed over the smells.

At the 20 minute mark, we checked it. Disaster. Not only had the camp oven boiled dry, but it had left a nasty charred mess where succulent beef was meant to be. And with the nearest shops 40kms away in Jindabyne…

Perhaps the coals had been closer to 500C? No problems, we could still make damper…

…which also burned to a crisp.

The kids toasted marshmallows.

In true invention test style, we cobbled together some pizza muffins for the kids and baked cheesy potato skins with a rough guacamole for us adults. Combined with cheeses, dips and some anti pasta veggies from a jar we had a feast. We prepared it using the stovetop and oven…which then had to be cleaned.

The lesson?

  • When the nearest shops are 40 clicks away it pays to over cater and have a back-up
  • no matter how well you plan it, you’re gonna be stuck cleaning a kitchen
  • Coals are tricky buggers
  • Cooking in a fire pit is not an exact science – who would have thought it?
  • As long as there are marshmallows to toast, all is not lost