FORT DE SOTO — True "cowboy" cooking starts long before the first match is lit.
The process begins with the quest for fuel.
"Nothing beats Florida oak," said Tom Pritchard, the head chef behind the Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores and the Island Way Grill in Clearwater Beach. "You want it dry and aged like a good wine."
Start the fire hours before you plan on cooking. I like to begin with a nice, clean work surface. So I always shovel out the old ash and burnt logs from the fire pit before I build my fire. Use small twigs and strands of Spanish moss to get the flames going, not fire starter, which will leave a bad aftertaste, even hours after you use it.
Get a good bed of ashes going, then get ready to start cooking. A free-standing grill that you can place over the fire costs about $20 at any local sporting goods store. Make sure it is sturdy enough to hold heavy, cast-iron cookware.
Cast-iron skillets are great for frying everything from chicken to catfish. A Dutch oven is the popular choice for making stews and soups.
My favorite pots and skillets are made by a company called Lodge, which has been in the Appalachian mountain town of South Pittsburg, Tenn. (population 3,300) since 1896.
If properly cared for, a good skillet can last for generations. Harriet Jackson, matriarch of the family that owns the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure, the Tampa Bay area's longest running outdoor retailer, has been cooking with the same cast-iron skillet for more than 60 years. Her favorite frying pan was given to her by her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother.
When it comes to Dutch ovens, camp versions are usually footed, so they can sit above the coals (though they can also hang from a tripod) and have a flanged lid where coals nestle. This allows heat to cook the food from above and below.
The reason why so many camp cooks, including this veteran, swear by cast iron is that these pots and pans distribute the heat evenly. You can cook slow and steady, which really brings out the flavor in everything from grouper cheeks to venison loins.
Cooking with coal, or charcoal briquettes, is an easy way to get started. Just place one-third of the coals under the pot and two-thirds on the flanged lid. Then just walk away, come back an hour or two later, and enjoy a tasty one-pot meal.
But skillet cooking requires a bit more expertise. That's where Pritchard comes in.
He started this particular meal with fresh vegetables donated by Eckerd College's Kip Curtis, the founder and executive director of the Edible Peace Patch Project.
"I like to cook with ingredients that are either grown or caught locally," Pritchard said. "It makes a big difference, both environmentally and in terms of taste, where you get your food."
After putting the veggies off to the side, Pritchard fried up some gator that had been recently captured by Tampa hunting and fishing icon Mike Mahoney. When the gator was fried to perfection, Pritchard used the same pan to cook mullet that had been netted that morning by Grand Master Angler Dean Pickel of St. Petersburg.
And to top it all off, Pritchard sautéed fresh venison and Osceola turkey contributed by twins Eric and Frank Bachnik.
It took about 45 minutes to cook everything but less than 10 minutes to eat it. So we threw a few more logs on the fire and started rummaging through the coolers.
"I've got some fresh grouper," Pritchard said. "It was just brought in today."
"I think I still have some mullet roe," Pickel said. "We've also got a bit of wild pig, too."
Like good cowpokes we settled into our camp chairs and got ready for Round 2.
"Hope everybody's hungry," Pritchard said. "I'm just getting started."