American recipes originated on open hearths, moved up to ovenless stove surfaces and finally adapted to electric and gas ranges. Now they easily return to the tops of wood stoves that heat millions of energy-conscious Americans
Today we know the essence of indigenous cuisine is actually a combination of foreign flavors brought by immigrants from many countries. Put these varied dishes over the soft, fluctuating heat of wood-burning stoves, and you'll have something quintessentially American.
Heating and cooking methods that worked for our ancestors come in handy for modern wood-burners. One 19th-century wood-burner advised using three logs of hardwood -- oak, maple and fruitwood -- for more efficient heat, and to keep a steady draft through the stove. Modern good sense dictates that you first heat your home properly, then cook according to the available heat required for the weather outside. Closing stove drafts to lower heat for the stew pot causes inefficient burning and increases creosote buildup and fire hazard.
American dishes that originated using wood fires more than 200 years ago often call for foods in season, such as apple dumplings. Otherwise, they contain grains and beans, which could be dried and stored, thus available in winter; or root crops, which could be held in the root cellar. Tough meats from grass-fed cows and scavenger pigs cooked long and slow in covered pots over the wood fire. Dried bread and stale crackers with dried fruits steamed on the stove pot made puddings with personality in pre-oven days.
Adapting such recipes to modern taste and practicality make cooking on your wood stove an adventure without the hardship faced by George and Martha Washington, Dolley Payne Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other early wood stove cooks.
To cook on the stove, first find its hot spot -- a variable point where the stove top reaches the highest heat. This is above the center of the fire, or, in a baffled stove, where hot air channels through the stove. Use that area for the quickest cooking.
While legend has it that hoecakes, which George Washington habitually ate with tea for breakfast, were originally cooked on the back of a hoe over an open fire, they readily adapted to a wood stove. They can cook directly on the stove surface, or on the surface covered with foil. Cakes over the hot spot will brown faster than on other parts of the stove. Other quick-cooking breads also cook nicely on the stove surface; try english muffins, scones, welsh cakes or biscuits.
Washington himself recorded the short ribs casserole recipe that follows. He wanted his Pennsylvania Dutch cook at Mount Vernon to prepare the dish, which was surely shared with guests, because the Washingtons didn't dine alone in 20 years. The short ribs are layered with other ingredients in a tightly covered baking dish, set on a trivet and placed atop the stove. Juices condense on the lid and drop back into the dish until they become a thick sauce. This slow, moist heat tenderizes tough cuts today as well as it did in Washington's day.
For another meal, Martha might have instructed the cook to prepare chicken fricassee, which was cooked over the wood fire and later became a favorite dish of Abraham Lincoln. Dolley Madison, who served not only her husband, president James Madison, but also Thomas Jefferson, instructed the White House cook to slowly simmer bits and scraps of vegetables with meat over the wood fire. As guests came in from a cold Washington night, she thrust a cup of the full-flavored broth into their hands.
Steamed puddings and bread remind the wood stove cook of the cuisine of his ancestors. Even with a low fire on a balmy day, you can steam food because the stove-top heat is increased by the steam. Cover a filled baking or pudding pan with foil and put it on a rack in a large kettle with a tight-fitting top. Add one or two inches of water to the kettle and cover it, setting it over heat for the appropriate amount of time.
Cornmeal puddings -- cooked originally over open fires -- were easily adapted to the wood stove surface. Indian pudding, which combines cornmeal with molasses or maple syrup and dried fruits, was a favorite of another first lady, Ellen Axson Wilson.
Bake Sally Lunn on the stove top for a taste that Patrick Henry found satisfying. Dorothea Dandridge Henry made this sumptuous bread for her husband on their farm in Red Hill, Va., and it can be reproduced easily on the wood stoves in modern American homes. Put a trivet on the top surface. Put the filled baking pan on the trivet. Invert a larger pan over this, allowing two to four inches of air space at sides and top of the baking pan.
Wood stoves don't preclude quick dishes, however. Oyster stew, cooked by generations of Marylanders, is a dish simple enough for the most primitive cooking methods. During the 1800s' oyster mania, health-conscious easterners ate an oyster a day from street peddlers or oyster bars for health and happiness. Fresh oysters were rushed over the Allegheny Mountains by express train -- faster than the mail -- to frontier towns. Virginians and Marylanders even shot at each other on Chesapeake waters over rights to the much-sought-after oyster.
Fulfilling the conservative ethic, there's no reason to waste the wood ashes. Just before stove-cleaning time, mound the ashes away from glowing coals and tuck in some sweet or idaho potatoes, wrapping them in foil if you are bothered by ashes on the skin. Let them cook -- half an hour or an hour, perhaps -- until they are soft and creamy inside.
Try your own favorite recipes on the wood heat stove top, or try the following. HOECAKES (2 servings) 1 cup coarse cornmeal 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespon melted shortening Hot water Butter or margarine Butter, maple syrup or honey topping
Mix cornmeal with salt and shortening. Add enough hot water to make dough that holds its shape, then shape into cakes. Rub with butter and cook directly on stovetop, on iron griddle or skillet set on stovetop. Brown on both sides and serve hot with butter and syrup if desired. MOUNT VERNON BAKED SHORT RIBS (6 servings) 4 tablespoons flour 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 4 pounds beef short ribs 2 tablespoons butter 3 medium onions, chopped 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1 tablespoon vinegar 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1/2 cup ketchup 1/2 cup bottled ale or beer 1 cup beef stock 6 carrots, peeled and halved
Combine flour, salt and pepper, then roll ribs in mixture. Heat butter in skillet and brown ribs on all sides. Add onions and cook until soft. Add next 6 ingredients, cover tightly and cook 1 1/2 to 2 hours over medium low heat. Add carrots and cook another hour.
Note: Cook in a conventional oven at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours, add carrots and cook another hour. CHICKEN FRICASSEE (6 servings) 3-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces 2 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons butter 2 cups water 12 small white onions Pinch thyme Pinch celery salt Pinch sage 1 egg yolk, beaten 4 cups cooked rice
Roll chicken in flour and brown in butter. Add water, onions and seasonings. Cover and place pan on trivet on stove top. Cook about an hour until chicken is tender, adding water during cooking to keep chicken covered with liquid. At end of cooking time, remove 3 tablespoons of hot liquid from the pot and stir into egg yolk. Stir thoroughly, return to pot, and heat through without letting it come to a boil. Serve over rice. INDIAN PUDDING (6 to 8 servings) 1 cup yellow cornmeal, stone ground preferred 1/2 cup molasses 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup butter 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1 egg yolk 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 1/2 cups hot milk Whipped cream
Mix all ingredients except half of the milk and the cream and bring to a simmer. Stir in remaining milk. Pour into greased 1-quart pudding dish. Cover with foil, tie with string, and put on rack in steamer kettle containing 1 inch of water. Steam 5 to 7 hours. Serve warm with whipped cream.
Note: Cook in conventional oven 3 hours at 275 degrees. SALLY LUNN WOODSTOVE (8 servings) 1 cup milk 1/3 cup butter 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons yeast 1/4 cup warm water 3 eggs 4 cups flour
Scald milk and while hot, add butter, sugar and salt. Cool until tepid. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Beat eggs until light. Combine milk mixture, yeast and eggs. Add enough flour to make stiff batter. Beat thoroughly and set aside to rise near stove for 30 minutes. Beat down vigorously. Repeat rising and beating down process several times. Pour into greased tube pan and let sit for about 1 hour until batter doubles in size. Put pan on trivet on stove top. Cover with larger pan and let cook about 1 hour until it sounds hollow to a thump.
Note: Bake in conventional oven at 350 degrees for about an hour. BAY OYSTER STEW (4 to 6 servings) 1 pint oysters, shucked, reserving liquor 1 quart milk Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup butter, cut in slices Paprika
In a 2-quart saucepan, heat oysters with liquor until it comes to a boil and oysters are hot. Slowly add milk, salt and pepper, and heat through but do not boil. Spoon 5 to 6 oysters into each bowl. Top with butter. Pour hot milk over all and sprinkle with paprika. All recipes from "Warm and Tasty: The Wood Heat Stove Cookbook."