I'VE always wished my home had a fireplace, but never more than recently. During the past several months I have taken part in three hearthside cooking classes. Two in Massachusetts -- at Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village -- and one at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
At these classes, simple, splendid fare was prepared using the humblest pots, skillets, and tools of each respective period.
Henry and Rosemary Slater, who packed their Winnebago and drove up from St. Petersburg, Fla., to tour New England, were eager to take part in a hands-on class at Plimoth Plantation.
``We do a lot of microwaving,'' Mrs. Slater conceded, ``but we also collect old skillets and pots. Plus we have two fireplaces, and I want to learn to start cooking with them.''
That evening the Slaters, along with 42 others, prepared a surprisingly sophisticated five-course meal, with the helpful hands of members of the Plimoth Plantation staff at the ready.
Only authentic 17th-century recipes copied from yellow, frayed cookbooks were used.
During those early years, most food was prepared in a large, dark room that doubled as kitchen and dining room, and in the poorer homes even served as the bedroom. Cookbooks were imported from England, and although helpful and appreciated, they didn't include references to indigenous American foods.
On the evening of this class, the aroma of apple fritters, fragrant with clove and nutmeg, filled the candlelit kitchen.
While vegetables (called ``herbs'' back then) were being gathered from the adjoining gardens, a rabbit stew with ginger, onions, and mace bubbled slowly in a large iron pot hung above the fire.
Everyone from silver-haired grandmothers to towheaded young boys took turns basting a fillet of beef on the spit with rosemary, thyme, and butter.
Spices and herbs, we were told, were added not to cover the slightly ``off'' food of past generations; here they were used strictly for flavor. A housewife took much pride in her collection of spices.
As early fireplaces were not equipped with ovens, baking was done out of doors in beehive shaped clay ovens that dotted the village.
These, like the later ovens attached to fireplaces, were fired by wood. The hot embers were then removed. Thick walls held the heat long enough to bake the various breads and pies.
In Williamsburg, a sun-soaked, hot summer's morning was spent in an even hotter kitchen in back of the Powell-Waller House.
There, in a kitchen separate from the living quarters, another rabbit stew was prepared, smothered in onions and herbs. Several plump chickens were stuffed and roasted right over the fire. Most interesting -- and delicious -- was a two-foot-long grouper stuffed with bread, onions, and herbs, wrapped in layers of cabbage leaves, and buried in hot coals.
Old Sturbridge Village reflects the period between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. Houses were built then with separate dining rooms, and little niceties appeared, like pewter candlesticks and linen napkins and tablecloths. Cooking had begun to Americanize.
In 1796, Amelia Simmons's ``American Cookery'' was published -- finally a completely American work. Included were recipes for Indian pudding, pumpkin pie, and johnnycakes. Miss Simmons shared her practical and often opinionated advice, such as: ``Veal bro't to market . . . in carriages, is preferred to that bro't in bags, and flouncing on a sweaty horse.''
``Salmon,'' she warned, ``unlike almost every other fish, are ameliorated by being three or four days out of water, if kept from heat and the moon, which has much more injurious effect than the sun.''
Indoor fireplaces were now equipped with attached ovens to make baking easier. Iron cranes swung out over the fire to hold pots. Adjustable trammels -- S-shaped hooks -- held pots at different heights above the fire.
On the afternoon I was there, small turkeys were cooked on the hearth in reflector ovens, also called ``tin-kitchens.''
Caroline Sloat, director of publications and membership at Old Sturbridge Village, has been researching life at the village for over 15 years. She is the editor of the ``Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook'' (Pequot Press, $9.95), a compilation of early American recipes adapted from Lydia Maria Child's ``The American Frugal Housewife,'' first published in Boston in 1829.
``People are again using their fireplaces for more than burning logs. Ever since the energy crisis in 1973 there's been a growing interest in hearth cooking,'' says Mrs. Sloat. ``Also, many young people restoring old houses are uncovering old ovens and want to use them. I've even gotten calls from people in New York who want to build a beehive oven in their apartment,'' she added.
The following recipes from the ``Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook'' are easily prepared on any fireplace. One equipped with an iron crane would make pot-cooking easier, although it is not essential. Corned Beef 2 cups salt 1 gallon hot water 3- to 6-pound brisket of beef Cold water to cover meat
Make brine solution by dissolving 1 1/2 cups salt in gallon of hot water in large enameled, glass, or stoneware pot.
Cool. Rub remaining 1/2 cup salt into meat. Place meat in cooled brine solution, covering with a weight to keep meat submerged.
Refrigerate or set in cool place for 48 hours.
To cook, rinse meat and place in large hanging pot over fire. Cover with water and bring to a boil.
Simmer, covered, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add more boiling water and cook additional 1 1/2 hours or until tender. Be sure fire is hot enough for pot to simmer for entire cooking period.
Serves 2 to 3 people per pound of meat. Pork Chops and Apples 2 thick slices of salt pork, cut in small pieces 4 to 6 pork chops 3 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced 2 to 3 cooking potatoes, sliced
Render salt pork in hanging skillet over fire. Add pork chops and fry 20 to 25 minutes.
If skillet is large enough, push meat to one side, otherwise transfer to serving platter and keep warm. Check to make sure there is sufficent fat for frying. If not, render another slice of salt pork.
Add apples and potatoes and fry until brown.
To serve, arrange apples and potatoes around meat on serving plate.
This recipe may be easily prepared in iron skillet on kitchen stove. Turnip Soup 3 large or 12 small turnips 1/2 gallon water 1 teaspoon black pepper 2 onions, one large and one small 6 whole cloves 1/8 teaspoon mace 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg Herbs of your choice 6 stalks celery 2 carrots 2 tablespoons flour Butter for frying Salt 1 cup vermicelli, optional
Peel turnips. Cut one large or 4 small ones into pieces and put in large hanging kettle. Add water, pepper, mace, nutmeg, herbs, and small onion stuck with cloves. Simmer over moderate heat 1 1/2 hours.
Remove turnip when tender and mash.
Put mashed turnip back into pot along with diced celery, one diced large or 4 small turnips, and one diced carrot. Simmer for 20 minutes over moderate fire.
Dice remaining turnip and carrot, coat with flour, and fry in butter. Slice and fry large onion. Add saut'eed vegetables and vermicelli, if desired, to simmering ingredients and cook until celery is tender, about 20 minutes. Salt to taste. -- 30 --