When you say you cook things over a fire in the dead of winter, people tend to reconsider their opinions of you. As in, just how crazy do you have to be to do that? And, don’t you guys have a stove?

We started cooking things over fire about four years ago. Two events coincided: my husband’s  birthday, in which I bought him (us, really) a Dutch oven, tripod and lid lifter from Cabela’s, and the acquisition of a hand-me-down fire pit from my sister.

We decided to place the fire pit as far from the house as possible. Naturally, this ended up under a tree, which perhaps wasn't the best idea, but we haven't had a problem yet.

When we started, we had no idea how long it would take to cook anything over a fire, how high to have the tripod, or how hot the fire would be. (Answers: not long, higher than you think, and damn hot.)

The fire is so hot, in fact, that it can burn off liquid in record time. The first time we cooked, we made a cheeseburger soup with bacon, and while I thought we might need extra broth, I didn’t expect to use all four cups in addition to everything I’d already put in the kettle. The heat from the fire just evaporates the liquid.

At the same time, if you make a vegetable stew, you have to account for the liquid the vegetables will give off. We’ve had thin soup more than once. All of this depends on how hot the fire is, however, and for that, I’ll offer these tips:

• Use decent firewood.

• Put that decent firewood in a tent-like configuration to allow air within the fire.

• Use a fire starter. The small ones from the grocery store will work fine.

• We like to let the fire starter burn out and get the fire going before we put on the food, so you may have to allow extra time. On the flip side, though, you’ll cuss less at your fire. Your call.

To date, we’ve made soup and stew of every kind over the fire, but one of our favorite dishes continues to be risotto, which requires a lot of stirring and adding broth in cupfuls to bring out the flavor and texture.

In a rush, I’ve been known to pour everything into the pan and let it do its work without me. This way, you'll end up with risotto that has a slightly grainy texture. If you want a more creamy texture, just put in a pat or two of cold butter after you’re done cooking and stir it in, along with some Parmesan cheese. I also reserve about a quarter of a cup of broth to add at the end so that it isn't too dry.

Not exactly Italian, but hey, I’m Irish.

Since this dish can handle being left to its own devices, cooking it over the fire is a perfect method for it. Not to mention, the smoke adds a new level to the flavor — something you’ll not find in a restaurant or (hopefully) on your stovetop.

Generally, you’ll want about a cup of broth to quarter of a cup of Arborio rice. However, when cooking over the fire, you might need a bit more, depending on how hot your fire is.

You’ll want to time it so your food is ready to cook when the fire is going. Plan to start the fire and prep work at least a half hour before you want to start cooking.

While cooking over the fire isn’t for everyone, it’s become a tradition for us. It’s the best part of camping, with the ease of being home. 

Risotto over the fire

4 cups chicken stock, plus 2 additional cups

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 onion, minced

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine, preferably chardonnay (or more broth, if wine is not your game.)

1/2 zucchini, chopped

1 1/2 cups cooked cubed chicken, optional

1 to 1/2 large red pepper, chopped

4 ounces packaged baby bella mushrooms, halved and sliced

1 teaspoon Cavender’s All Purpose Greek seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

Parmesan for stirring in, about a 1/2 cup to 1 cup

1 tablespoon butter for stirring in

Have on hand:

• A spoon for stirring (metal is best)

• Jar of extra chicken broth

• Oven mitts

• Lid lifter

• A pail of water to douse the fire

• A long stick or poker to move logs on the fire

• A flashlight if you’re doing this in the dark

• A tasty beverage 

Simmer or microwave 6 total cups water for stock, and add 6 chicken bouillon cubes, or about 1 1/4 tablespoons of Better Than Bouillon. Pour 2-plus cups of stock into a mason jar to keep by the fire.

Mince and chop all veggies and cooked chicken, if using. 

Place butter and oil into Dutch oven. Add rice and stir to coat. Add veggies. Then add the wine and up to 4 cups of broth. Add seasonings and stir well. Place the lid on the Dutch oven.

Make sure the fire is going at a fairly good clip. Set chain so that the fire will just lick the bottom of the cast-iron pot. You don't want the whole thing engulfed in flame.

Carefully carry the pot to the fire pit and, using large oven mitts, place the handle of the oven on the hook for the chain, adjusting for balance. This is best done with a buddy, as sometimes the chain, hook or tripod legs can shift with the weight. (You may need to reposition the tripod if this happens.)

Once everything is good to go and the flame is hitting the bottom of the pot, set your timer for about 20 minutes.

Once 20 minutes has passed, use the lid lifter to check the risotto. Once the steam clears, you should see the rice bubbling at the edges of the pan, if not across the entire surface. If you do not observe this, your fire is too low. Add or restack wood to ensure plenty of air for the flame.

If your risotto is boiling like crazy, take the fire down a notch, or reposition the chain to make sure the pot is above the flame somewhat. Remember to use those oven mitts!

Also, check the liquid level. If it looks dry — as in you can see several individual grains not immersed in liquid, which may be the case if the fire is roaring — then add some chicken broth. Likely, you won’t add too much in this case; the fire will burn it off if you do.

Set the timer for another 10 to 20 minutes and check it again, stirring and adding liquid as needed. At this point, if your stock has absorbed, you can remove the pan from the heat. If not, keep checking every 5-10 minutes to see where it’s at.

Once you take it off the fire, let it sit about 10 minutes, and then take it  inside. Taste for seasoning and add as needed. If it seems dry, add more hot chicken broth. Stir in the cold butter vigorously, then top with Parmesan. Replace the lid and let it sit to cool while you enjoy the fire. 

I like to serve this with another vegetable, and chicken or fish, if I didn’t add any meat. It also goes well with a glass of white wine, which is convenient if you've opened a bottle for the dish. 

After you’ve had your fill of risotto and are dreaming of your next over-the-fire cooking episode,

remember to check on a few things. First, check your fire. It’s best to let it die down on its own, but you can break up the wood and ashes to help disperse the fire. Then you can douse it with water, and stir to make sure the fire is burned out. Check on it later to make sure it hasn't reignited.

Next, clean out your Dutch oven to avoid caked-on risotto — never a fun surprise for the next morning. 

Also, put those leftovers in the fridge — both of us agree that sometimes risotto is better the next day.

Whitney Carnahan is a former journalist and writes at tinycountercooking.blogspot.com.

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