If you're anything like me, the thought of going into town on New Year's Eve fills you with dread. This year (end of 2016), we opted for a quieter affair, and thought we'd rustle up some yummy food at home and welcome in 2017 in some quiet style.
We bought some shell fish for starters and some steak and lobster for mains. With the weather being so fine, we decided to cook our starter on the beach, and if it wasn't for the rapid loss of day light, we would have cooked our main meal there too.
I posted some of the photos of this culinary adventure on Instagram and they got quite a bit of love from everyone. A few people messaged me with questions about cooking outdoors and it reminded me how much of a daunting task it can be when you're just starting out. Although I replied to all the people who messaged me, I thought I'd pull a little blog post together to encourage others to eat outside more often.
Let me make a couple of things clear before you read on. I am not a chef or qualified to prepare food in any way, but I do love food and experimenting with new ingredients and new ways of enjoying food. I am also no expert at outdoor cooking, everything I do I have learnt through trial and error. This blog post will likely be updated a few times over the next year or so as I refine my cooking and fire making process and learn how to do things better, but if you're just starting out, it should help you on your way. If you are a chef or an outdoor cooking expert, please go easy on me. That said, I'd love to hear any tips you have, so please do comment below. Just because I'm sharing what I've learnt with others, it doesn't mean that I don't recognise that I still have a lot to learn for myself. Any advice is welcome.
Location: Whenever we want to eat outside, we always head down to our favourite local spot overlooking the Gannel Estuary on Crantock beach. It's a sheltered spot in the sand dunes just a few minutes from our house. The foliage in the dunes seems to stop the wind swirling the sand around too much, which means less of it ends up in your food. The towering dunes around you also shelter you from the gusts that sometimes blow through the valley there. I remember one day last summer, trying to cook a bacon sarnie on a gorgeous but very windy day on Porth beach. Despite having a windbreak up, a big gust of wind dumped a load of sand into the pan with the bacon. I very nearly threw all my toys out of the pram in a 'hangry' moment. This taught me that no matter how sunny it is and how clear and blue the skies are, if it's windy, don't even bother. Other things to consider when making fires outdoors;
- Check that you're actually allowed to light fires on the beach. I know in Falmouth you are allowed fires on some beaches and not on others. On Gylly beach you're allowed to BBQ but not have fire, whereas just a few coves along on Maenporth beach, you are allowed to light fires all day long. Apparently, this has something to do with the way Cornwall used to be broken up into different areas and governed by different councils all having unique legislation. The councils and their boundaries have long been absorbed into the much larger 'Cornwall Council', but the old legislation has stuck. If in doubt check, there are usually signs around saying that fires are banned if they don't want you to have them.
-Also think about wind direction and who is around you. Don't light a fire up wind and a few ft away from the lovely family who has set up camp and been enjoying the beach all day before you arrived. As delicious as your sausages may smell, it's not nice being smoked out by them.
-Be aware of the tide. Setting up camp right by the water's edge may be filled with romanticism. However, when you suddenly realise that the water is quickly approaching your 1/2 cooked meal, all romanticism will be lost in the chaos of trying to shift burning logs further up the beach. Buy a tide table or download an app to save yourself the stress. Going towards the high water mark on the beach (usually marked by a line of seaweed and other flotsam) should put you in the good spot.
Equipment: I have a big black bucket in the boot of my car that has everything I need in it to make a meal. It has cutlery, plates, cups, Swiss army knife, wooden spoons, salt, pepper, oven gloves, bin bags, wet wipes (essential), basically everything I've learnt that I need over time. Somethings have also been taken out over time as I've learnt they're an unnecessary luxury and I can make do with other items that have a multi function element to them. Whenever I arrive at the beach and know that I'm going to cook a meal, I just take out of the bucket what i need and put it in a smaller bag that I take down to the beach with me. It means that there's less prep at home gathering everything together, and because there's less prep, you do it more often because it becomes easy. It also means that if you forget something, you just need to run back to your car and grab it. If you're cooking up a huge meal, you can always just haul the whole bucket with you. Top tips on creating your own kit bucket
-Keep knives and forks etc in a separate Tupperware box, so that they are all together and you're not digging around in the bottom of the bucket for individual knives. When you get home and wash them, you can put them straight back into the tupperware box. This stops them from working their way into your cutlery drawer at home, leaving you stranded for eating utensils when you're next on the beach.
-Buy good quality and attractive plastic plates, cups, wine glasses, etc. Cheap plastic glasses just shatter after one or two uses and ugly plates are just, well, ugly.
-A good Swiss army knife will replace at least 4-5 others tools such as a bottle opener, a cork screw, a knife, scaler, tin opener, scissors, etc
-Have a few blankets that you leave in the car at all times. Make sure one has a waterproof bottom.
-Buy a Gas stove (they're only about £10 off eBay and often come with a few gas canisters too) and a camping kettle. Keep tea bags in a tupperware box so that they're fresh. I don't condone theft, but taking an extra sugar sachet (or two) every time you visit a cafe will come in handy for your brews on the beach. You just need to grab some milk en route to the beach in order to make tea or coffee. I also always have a big 5L bottle of water in the car too. You can decant it into smaller bottles that are easier to carry but at least you don't run out as often.
-Wet wipes are great for cleaning hands and wiping down plates before you put them in a bag to carry home and clean down properly.
-I also have a roll of cling film. We don't always eat all the food that we take down to the beach with us. We may only use 1/2 lemon or eat a few sausages out of the pack. Having some cling film handy means that you can wrap it up and when you get home, it can go straight back in the fridge, rather than it being full of sand and going in the bin instead.
- I used a Dutch oven which I got from Poler Stuff because I was a sucker for the pretty pattern on the lid (I'm not an affiliate). Any old Dutch oven will do.
Ingredients: Unless you're an expert at this type of cooking, I would leave the French haute cuisine for at home. You can't regulate the temperature and carting that many ingredients and sharp knives around makes it hard work, and will put you off doing it. Keep the barriers to cooking outside really low by making it as simple, easy, and enjoyable as possible. Although the ingredients above may look fancy, they are actually really simple.
For this recipe, I put a few glugs of wine, crushed garlic, sliced chilli and thyme in the Dutch oven, heated it a bit, and then threw in the fish bits. Once I'd put the prawns and crab claws in, and got them semi cooked, I then tossed in the scallops and emptied a pack of vacuum packed mussels that I got from Morrison. I let it boil up, and then 'hey presto', it was done. Minimum faff, which meant we could enjoy our time together and soak in the scenery. It was also super yummy.
Building a fire: You'll need a lighter, some fire-lighter fluid or blocks, kindling, paper, coal or lump wood, logs, spade and something to poke with (either a stick you've found or a purpose made fire poker). Again, I always have a supply of these in the boot of my car. Quite often we've been out and about with no intention of eating on the beach, but the sun has been shining, and we have nipped into the supermarket, grabbed a few ingredients, and ended up rustling up a storm on the beach. It's so easy once you have everything to hand.
-Start the fire with kindling. Pack it loose enough so that air flows through it, but tight enough that they all catch alight easily.
-Once the kindling is burning nicely, then start adding the logs. Start by adding the smallest logs first and then building up to the larger ones. Once the logs are burning nicely, you can then add coal.
- We dug a little hole and built the fire inside that which helped keep it out of the wind a bit more. You may want to put some rocks around it, which gives the fire a boundary and also insulates the fire (otherwise the heat going off in an outwards direction is lost).
-As you can see from the photo below, we built our fire in a tepee shape. This is the most efficient fire to build as the air flow is funnelled quickly upwards generating a lot of heat at the top. Because the fire is so intense, it does burn through more fuel than other wood fire formations. The best formation for cooking is to build what's known as a 'log cabin'. You light a little fire in the middle, and then stack wood around it (like building 4 walls), and slowly build it upwards creating a small chimney. The square shape creates uniform heat and is considered the best for cooking, but they can be a bugger to get started if you don't dig sufficient air flow holes around the bottom of the 'cabin walls'. Maybe start with a tepee and then experiment further as you get more confident.
-Beware of making fires on rocky or shingle beaches. Once some rocks reach a certain temperature, they can explode. Not good if you're sat around it with a glass of red wine in your hand. Been there, done that: got the white t-shirt with red wine stains on to prove it.
-Once you've finished with your fire, always extinguish it properly by flooding it with water. Covering it with sand does not always smother it enough to put it out, and many people are burnt each summer by walking over the top of someone else's hot coals. Don't be responsible for someone ending up in A&E, or someone's pet having an expensive trip to the vet. This is especially important if you throw food scraps into the fire, dogs will smell them, and dig down for them. If the fire isn't extinguished properly, they can end up with nasty injuries.
I'd love to hear how you get on. If you're a frequent outdoor cooker, I'd love to hear your favourite recipes as well as any locations you enjoy. Sharing is caring guys.
I'm open to questions, but can't promise to know the answer. I'll try my best. If you do ask a question, make sure you turn on the option to 'receive replies' so that you will be notified when I respond.
Peace out peoples