One of the more memorable diversions from last year was socially distanced outdoor gatherings with family members and “pod” friends, hanging around the most primitive of cooking stations: a fire pit. No need to clean the house or lay out a fancy spread — it’s the pandemic after all; we’re just trying to survive.
My favorite things about cooking outdoors, whether camping or roasting something on a stick, is how everything feels more like a treat and accidents and mishaps are par for the course—marshmallows set ablaze, a sausage exploding from its casing or that thin spear of asparagus slips through the grate as a sacrifice to the grill gods.
Even though most of us are vaccinated and venturing back out into the world, I’m not ready to give up that living-in-the-present, slowed-down mood I came to appreciate. Especially now that all that derecho firewood is properly cured.
One fireside cooking method I’ve come to enjoy is experimenting with cooking vegetables and flatbreads directly in the ashes and hot coals. Not only is it a thrill watching dough bubble up or vegetable skins blacken in the embers, it’s also darn tasty. This spring at a backyard gathering with family I made naan-style bread slathered with homemade labneh. The refreshing tartness of the strained yogurt on slightly charred bread proved to be a lovely base for any number of fresh toppings. We decked ours out with ember-roasted peppers, grilled olives, radish, cucumbers and backyard herbs, drizzled with olive oil and big pinches of za’atar. Use what’s in season. Eat it like a pizza or fold it in half like a taco.
Cooking on embers isn’t about achieving perfection, so try and let yourself relax and be entertained by the irregular wabi-sabi dough shapes, the bubbling bread, the burnt bits and the amusement of preparing food like a caveman.
What is za’atar?
Za’atar is generally a combination of dried oregano, thyme, marjoram, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. You can find any number of recipes to make it online, or pick some up locally. I’ve seen cute boxes of it at Ten Thousand Villages.
How to build a coal bed
Like any fire, start with small stuff for the kindling and work your way up to bigger wood. To achieve a nice pile of cooking coals you’ll want to transition your fire to hardwoods (like oak or maple) and make sure to maintain an open structure to the fire so air can move through. I’m a big fan of the log cabin-style structure or criss-cross build. Get it roaring and allow an hour or so for the wood to burn down into hot, ashy embers. Then arrange the coals so you have a relatively flat bed and push any still-burning wood to the side to create more coals should you need them.
I’ve experimented with a slew of flatbread recipes over hot coals and all of them have worked to a certain degree, but so far, this naan-style dough recipe has proved to be everyone’s favorite — light, chewy and crispy on the outside. You can cut this recipe in half if you’d like, but the ingredients are cheap and it’s nice to have 12 to play with, knowing you can burn half of them to a crisp if you get yourself totally lost, mesmerized by the bubbling dough.
Makes 12 pieces
- 1 packet of active dry yeast
- 1 cup of warm water
- 2 tbsp sugar
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 4 tbsp ghee (melted)
- Make it the day before and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight to let even more flavor develop.
- Mix yeast with water and sugar in a bowl and leave for 10-15 minutes covered until nice and foamy.
- Whisk egg and milk together.
- Sift dry ingredients (flour and salt) into a large bowl.
- Make a well in the flour and add foamy yeast, ghee and egg and milk mixture. Mix together with a fork and then start working it with your hands to form a soft, slightly sticky ball. If the dough wants to stick to your hands, dust with more flour and knead to incorporate.
- Place dough back in the bowl, cover and let proof somewhere warm until it’s doubled in size (about 1.5 hours). If you’re doing this the day of, this might be a great time to get your fire started.
- Ease dough out of the bowl onto a floured countertop. Divide into 12 semi-equal pieces and form into balls. Lightly dust with flour and leave them to rise for another 10-15 minutes.
- When your coals are ready to go, roll out your balls on a floured surface with a rolling pin into roughly six-inch rounds and sprinkle with enough flour so they’re easily handled. They’re going to feel floppy and imperfect but don’t sweat it. Play the game What State Shape Does This Naan Look Like?
- Transport your rolled dough to your fire pit using a cookie sheet. (See note on building a coal bed.) Working one at a time, using two hands, lay your dough directly on the coals. This might take some getting used to so that the dough doesn’t fold over on itself. After a couple moments you’ll start to see the surface of the dough bubble up. This is the magical moment we’ve been waiting for. Once it’s begun to get toasted and lightly charred on the bottom (20-40 seconds), flip it over with tongs and remove any chunks of ember that might have stuck to the dough. If there are a couple areas that seem undercooked just place a hot ember on them while the other side bakes (another 20-40 seconds). Again, be prepared for some trial and error here as you get used to the temperature.
- Wrap your finished bread in a tea towel as you go to keep it warm, or toss it to one of your guests like a Frisbee to enjoy straight away. Watch out for any sneaky pieces of hot coal that might be hitching a ride.
- Brush the bread with olive oil or butter to eat plain, lay out a spread of dips and spreads, or use your imagination. Flatbreads are flying saucers that can accommodate all types of passengers.
Rake out your hot coals into an even layer and place whole vegetables directly on the embers, turning them until they’re evenly charred and tender. Almost anything with a sacrificial skin will work; onions, peppers and eggplant are our favorites. Allow cooked veggies to steam and cool in a bag or container before removing the charred skins. Eat plain or enjoy dressed with a little extra virgin olive oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
Whole, unpeeled onions develop a nicely burned shell, allowing the insides to steam in their own juices. Turn every so often until easily pierced with a knife (about 30-60 minutes).
Whole bell peppers or jalapeños need to be turned frequently until evenly charred (8-10 minutes). Once steamed, the skin of the peppers will rub right off with your fingers. Discard stems and seeds.
Eggplants can be buried completely in the coals and cooked until shriveled and soft all over (about 15 minutes depending on their size). Once cooled, slit open the eggplant and scoop out the flesh.
Labneh (strained yogurt)
Labneh, popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, is essentially yogurt with the whey strained out, resulting in a tangy, thick and super versatile spread. You can score a tub of it from Oasis Falafel or find the commercially made stuff at some of the global grocery markets in the area. But it’s also a cinch to make at home if you have a little patience.
- 24 oz. of Greek or whole fat plain yogurt
- A pinch of salt
- Juice from half a lemon
- Line a strainer or colander with cheesecloth and set over a bowl.
- Combine yogurt, salt and lemon juice.
- Spoon yogurt into the cheesecloth and fold over to cover.
- Leave in the refrigerator to drain for 24 hours.
- Discard strained whey or save it for another use (some people throw it into smoothies, add it to their dog’s diet or even use it to condition their hair!).
- Enjoy like you would hummus with a glug of extra virgin olive oil and a scattering of za’atar.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 296.