Kyle pulled out a hollowed out tree branch stump from his truckbed. It was heavy, took up an impractical footprint of precious space, and failure as a firewood log, being too large in all directions. Sydney, his partner, was suspicious.
“I saw it on YouTube!” he exclaimed.
There was a hole cut through the center of the wooden cylinder where he scooped out the inside like a pumpkin lantern. At one end of the log, he cut a hole perpendicular to create a window to nuzzle coals into. The front hole was too narrow for a piece of coal held between barbecue tongs so we dropped the coals through the top of the chute, sprinkled in lighter fluid, and lit them up.
Smoke rose out of the top in ribbons. The coals brightened to lava red. It was a chiminea and campfire stove and photogenic rustic wood sculpture in one. The diameter was coincidentally, the same size a 10” cast iron flat skillet that Kyle set atop with a flour tortilla envelope of cheese. I dropped whole onions wrapped in tinfoil down the chute and peeled off the tender smoking carmelized layers, eating them like the main course. The longer it burned, the more interesting the log became, an ash and charcoal black gash searing down the middle as the fire eating it’s host. We took so many pictures. In Baja, campfire and waves on the horizon is everything, and we had both in spectacular form.
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We arrived second to the to the cliff’s edge. Michiah and Summer, the lead van in our caravan, left us literally in their dust after our train of three vans and one truck turned off the highway to the dirt road that led to the point. Driving in their dusty wake was like following a sandstorm cloud, so we slowed down until they passed out of view. I shed my outer layers and rolled down the windows to sweat in the noonday sun. We were to follow the road straight, not to turn any hard lefts or rights off the road and we would hit the beach after about 30 minutes. The drive felt like riding a jackhammer.
I knew we were getting closer to our parking spot when the climate changed to chillier breeze and I wanted my sweater. The wind was blowing hard offshore, but after sitting in the car all morning, we all wanted to surf. There was a gentle A-frame that broke over a kelp patch. Definitely longboard. The wave was breaking consistently and alluringly that disguised the texture in the water. Or maybe we were in first-day-on-vacation denial. The truth of the wind became clear watching Summer walk down the pathway, clutching her longboard and wobbling to stay straight as her board caught the gusts and bossed her around. I caught a few waves with icy needles spraying into my face as I paddled blindly down the face.
Back at the campsite, we unpacked despite the Baja winds that didn’t let things stay tethered. It came in gusts that rattled our longboards stowed under the van and blew over our naked camping table. We mixed drinks in the shelter of the vans to hide from the wind and dust. Car camping with a tent is all smiles under blue skies but the van is a superior tiny home when it comes to Baja’s dry sun and weather.
Two drinks later led to being hungry, so we snacked on crackers and dip while compiling the mise-en-plase for dinner in Summer’s cast iron pot. On the menu was a big slab of “Cardiff crack,” which is a USDA Choice tri tip steak that is trimmed and infused with a burgundy pepper marinade. It is an addictive specialty of the Seaside Market in Encinitas. She lit up a pile of coals and babysat them until they turned from glowing to white, then used the tongs to arrange them under the cast iron pot and on top.
Cast iron cooking is a new thing for me. My parents used regular stainless steel, nonstick pans, and the occasional wok. Not until my 30s did I learn about this magic heat conducting vessel that makes the crispiest potatoes and tender savory braised greens. The first time I remember cooking potatoes in a cast iron pan, they were baby fingerlings from the farmer’s market, which I par-boiled whole, smashed with the flat edge of my knife, and cooked in a shallow pool of oil with garlic, a sprinkle of chives and course salt. They were so spectacularly easy, crackly crunchy skin and soft starch pocket, I felt cheated on all the home-cooked Sunday brunches that could have been.
We peeled up an edge of the sizzling steak to see it was blackened just enough. The surrounding nest of potatoes, carrots and mushrooms were stewing in the rendered fat and juices. Dinner was done; the dutch oven was taken off the coals; chairs were being rearranged and plates gathered.
Then the wind just stopped. The water turned sheet glass. We all turned to each other and telepathically thought the same thing. It was verbally agreed, “We have to surf now.”
“The dutch oven will keep the roast warm for a while,” Summer said. It was too perfect not to go. There was at least an hour and a half of daylight left. Within minutes, our wetsuits were on and we were paddling out with the orange sunset sinking behind the horizon. It was a completely different wave. Before, I was sloshing in a high tide, choppy water rodeo. The surface of the water against the backlit sun was oil slick as my board glided over the surface smooth as cutting butter.
I was cruising down the line and my fin jerked to a halt by the kelp patch, launching me face forward over the front of the nose. Summer’s strategy was to crouch down low and grabbing rail—to skate over through the forest below—when I expected her to step towards the nose. On my next wave, I made it through and felt like I was playing a game to dodge and weave the kelp tendrils. The water was chilly but the air felt warm and dry.
“That beef and roots, stewing in caramelized juices are going to taste as satisfying as a Michelin meal after this,” I savored the thought. It was then I realized the hype about Cardiff crack. The marinated slab of meat is indeed uniquely flavored and pretty foolproof to screw up by cooking over a fire. But it can’t be a coincidence that these cult followers walked over to Seaside Market after surfing at the bottom of the cliff, bit into a slice of Cardiff crack and melded the summer memory as one. The flavor of the steak is a comforting objective correlative—a sensory experience of salt on your skin and lips and the contentment of wanting for nothing. Now it was my memory too.
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Recipe for steak and vegetables in a cast iron camp oven
Tools: 6 or 8 quart cast iron camp oven with three legs; long grill tongs; coals.
Ingredients: 1 whole burgundy pepper tri-tip from Seaside Market (or 3.25 lbs of tri-tip, marinated) and olive oil for cooking
Various vegetables: 1 lb of fingerling potatoes (red or fingerlings) and 1 lb of carrots both cut into 1-2 inch pieces. 1 box of mushrooms. Optional: 1 onion quartered and a handful of garlic cloves.
Method: Spread olive oil all around the inside of your cast iron oven.
To pre-heat the oven, fire up a bunch of coals (6-10 to arrange under the oven in a formation that heats evenly, plus the same number of coals to put on top). Wait until the coals go from bright orange to white. When they are just turning white, arrange them under the oven in a configuration that heats evenly. We went for staggered rows on the bottom and peppered around the top.
After a few minutes, check that the oven is warm (we didn’t do this scientifically, but just hovered our hand over and around the sides to feel if it was warmed up). Once it feels warm, place the whole piece of tri-tip inside. You can cut up the pieces smaller if you are in a hurry. Make a little nest of the cut potatoes, carrots, and if you’re using them, the onions and garlic cloves around the tri-tip.
Let it hang out for a while, maybe at least 15-20 minutes and keep checking on it that it’s not burning. Have a drink, tell a story. Light up a few more coals and replace the coals that have burned out with the new ones. Check on it to see how rare it still looks on top and lift up to check out the underside. You’re looking for that blackened sear. When it looks tasty on the underside and you can tell it’s halfway cooked through on the sides, flip it over and add the mushrooms. Keep cooking for 15-20 minutes longer, depending on how well-done you like your meat. Make sure to mix around the vegetables too. Sometimes there are hot and cold spots in the oven.
If you decide to go out for a quick surf and come back as we did, take it off the coals and it will stay warm in the oven for at least an hour. If you want to eat sooner, it’s still a good idea to let it cool down with the lid on for a few minutes after you take it off the coals. Slice the meat on a cutting board and serve around the campfire.